Hello Doctor. It would seem that there’s no escaping the fact that diesel power is in for something of a rough time over the next few years, and we must wonder in what form it may survive, both in private motoring and in road haulage, and possibly also rail transport. I wonder what The Doctor’s reflections are on it all. Are we seeing the inevitable death of diesel on the distant horizon, and maybe even the death of the internal combustion engine, in all its forms? If so, at least there may be the satisfaction of going down the plughole along with petrol power, which might give us something to chuckle about. I think that I am right in saying that many diesel enthusiasts, and probably Diesel Car readers, have connections with the road haulage trade, and that gets me wondering what sort of power form is supposedly going to pull the next decade’s 38- and 44-tonne HGVs, if it is not to be diesel? Or does Doctor think that, if diesel can get cleaned up enough, and is not overtaxed, then it at least has a future in long distance heavy goods transport vehicles? But are there realistic alternatives to diesel powered HGVs looming on the horizon? For that matter, are there any clean, low carbon, alternative power sources in the process of development that can ìdeliver the goodsî for the next decade of white van men? Interested in your thoughts.
Profound thoughts indeed Bob, and I think you’re not alone in having them. I actually lie awake at nights sometimes, wondering about such things ñ it surely can’t be the malt whisky! I think that other Diesel Car readers will also consider this a serious subject. Everything seems to be moving so fast and, with so many bold (maybe too bold?) predictions about conversion to electric power, autonomous road vehicles, and the end of fossil fuels, people and businesses are understandably at present hesitating to commit themselves to buying new cars. That must be a big factor in why UK car sales are down on last year, and it’s a result of an uncertain economic picture. It’s not good to see a once healthy UK motor industry (back in 2017) suddenly putting the brakes on, partly as a result of the Brexit situation, and partly as a result of ill-thought-out taxation related pollution and emissions policies. The industry deserves better guidance and encouragement, as does the ordinary motorist who, in normal circumstances, would be buying a new car today, or next month.
We should perhaps stop and consider what sort of economy, and therefore UK car industry, we should be aspiring to, and what levels of economic growth are, in reality, compatible with keeping Planet Earth in good shape. I’m not a tree-hugger, but maybe this setback in UK car sales is a blessing in disguise ñ which in stock market terms they would call a healthy correction. The previous sales growth rate was perhaps unhealthily high, both in terms of credit lending for car finance, and production levels that were approaching the unsustainable. Plus, I might observe, there seems to have been a singular lack of restraint in the growth of power and road performance, with too many 200bhp plus cars that, in cities, and with a 70mph national limit, are arguably something of a nonsense.
But the primary pollution problems are in urban areas, not just in Britain, but all over the world, and we badly need economical and clean city transport, and therefore compact plug-in electric cars, at affordable prices ñ not more enormous, high performance SUVs at silly prices! Whether such compact plug-in cars will, in time, be owned by you and I, or by hire companies, and rented on a journey-by-journey basis, is speculative, and how fast it may happen, only time will tell. But I certainly do see both petrol and diesel power being virtually banned from cities and many sizeable towns, and I do see public transport vehicles becoming largely hybrid and plug-in. Here is where the exchangeable battery system could work well, with buses getting a fully charged replacement battery dropped in regularly, with little disruption to their service efficiency. In the immediate future though, we do need to get dirty cars out of the cities, and I’m not convinced that existing policies are doing this effectively, or fast enough. Something like obligatory Park and Ride might work ñ although with increasing on-line shopping, maybe city centres are going to gradually die anyway, as they have done in the USA.
Finally, you mentioned HGVs and white van door-to-door retail deliveries. Thereís currently a race to bring electric trucks to the market and thus, hopefully, change the economics of the haulage industry and its reliance on fossil fuels. Tesla has the most ambitious plans to electrify the market with the Tesla Semi, but Daimler Trucks, one of the largest incumbent manufacturers, is apparently not too worried. Their CEO throws cold water on Teslaís electric truck project and says that Daimler will come out on top long-term! (The hugely better aerodynamics featured in electric trucks would equally benefit conventionally powered HGVs, where the added initial cost could be quite rapidly recoverable.) With electric power, and current electricity costs, potential cost savings on a 500 miles per day trip of perhaps £250 per driving day, or £50,000 plus per year, could give a rapid return on the investment costs, as long as taxation of electric power isn’t raised to replace lost tax income from diesel fuel. Add in the concept of HGV convoy driving, with three or more trucks driving nose-to-tail, with suitable automated safety technology, and better aerodynamics still, and we’re in a totally new game. Delivery vans and small trucks used for door-to-door deliveries, usually for online purchases, are as yet least suited to electric power. Hard-driven, and often with daily mileages well in excess of today’s potential ranges, only convenient ultra-rapid charging would fit in with their tight schedules. Light electric vans are available for limited range local deliveries, but the larger e-Sprinter announced by Mercedes-Benz with a 93-mile range and a limited 1,000kg payload, may well be suitable for inner city deliveries, but is not the way forward. Neither would white van man be any happier in Volkswagen’s e-Crafter van, with its 55mph speed limit and 99-mile range, and both models also come with eye-watering prices. So, diesel power will take some shifting as the master of these sort of goods deliveries.
In contrast to all this untapped potential, I am afraid that I see the technology of ever more driver aids and the considerable expenditure on developing fully autonomous cars somewhat misplaced. Has anyone asked the driving public if they will be happy to forego the enjoyment of driving, and having responsibility for their own safety? Are the legal aspects of insurance and liability yet defined? It’s an enormous subject, and I think that’s enough from me for now Bob, but I hope that my thoughts are not too radical for you and our readers.
Thanks for your letter.