Death of small diesel cars – meet emission levels or make profit, not both

At crisis meetings in boardrooms across Europe, car industry executives have been pondering a chilling thought.

The scenario goes something like this. The Volkswagen scandal leads to greater scrutiny from regulators and tougher emissions tests, making it more expensive to produce “clean” diesel cars in a sector already contending with razor thin profit margins.

Meanwhile, public awareness of harmful diesel pollution rises, prompting consumers to shun the fuel. That adds to existing pressure on carmakers to find alternative technologies – mainly electric – to comply with stringent EU targets to cut carbon dioxide emissions from 2020.

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If costs rise, either the car companies pay or the consumers do, says Adam Jonas, analyst at Morgan Stanley. “Given the highly competitive nature of the auto industry, we strongly suspect the consumer will get the better end of the deal,” he adds.

VW’s shares have fallen almost 40 per cent since revelations first emerged on September 18 about the German carmaker’s cheating in diesel vehicle emissions tests in the US. The shares of other European carmakers -BMW, Daimler, PSA Peugeot CitroĂ«n and Renault – have also declined, albeit less dramatically, highlighting investors’ fears that the VW scandal will speed the decline of diesel.

Some of these companies have invested billions of euros in diesel-powered cars, and pushed up the vehicles’ market share to 53 per cent of western European sales. This partly reflects EU governments’ concerns at how petrol cars generate more carbon dioxide emissions than their diesel equivalents.

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But in the wake of the VW scandal, LMC Automotive, an industry forecaster, now foresees diesel accounting for just 35 per cent of western European sales by 2022.

The demonisation of diesel, as it is known in the industry, was already well under way before the VW scandal broke.

Successive reports had shone a light on the harmful effects of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter – the pollutants from diesel vehicles that are known to cause respiratory problems and account for more than 52,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, according to a recent British government report.

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Research groups – such as the International Council on Clean Transportation, which helped expose the VW scandal – have highlighted the high levels of nitrogen oxides emitted by diesel cars on the road despite their complying with the latest “Euro 6” regulations in laboratory tests.

The VW scandal has given diesel’s critics new resolve. The European Commission, which was already looking to toughen up an outdated monitoring regime, has been emboldened and will press to enforce new laboratory tests for petrol and diesel cars relating to emissions of both carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. There will also be a portable, on the road testing system for emissions of nitrogen oxides by 2017.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 7.28.04 AMThe cost for carmakers of using emissions reduction technology to comply with Euro 6 rules is now at as much as €1,300 per car, say analysts at Exane BNP Paribas. That could rise by €200 to €300 per car under new Euro 6c regulations due in 2017, add the analysts.

This all represents a big challenge for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Peugeot, Renault and the core VW brand. Premium peers such as BMW, Daimler and Audi have higher selling prices, and thus bigger margins on their large cars that can absorb the extra cost of expensive technology.

Some in the industry say that means the days of small diesel cars are numbered. “On a small car, you’ve got no margin at all,” says one executive at a European mass-market carmaker. “Small diesel engines will end up in a museum,” he adds, saying that this would mean a move to petrol cars.

The challenge would then be for European carmakers to convert production at engine plants from diesel to petrol. Peugeot says its petrol engine production capacity is “not fully utilised, therefore giving us the possibility to adjust production if need be between petrol and diesel”.

Other analysts say the death of diesel has been overdone. “We don’t think diesel is dead at all,” says Thomas Besson, analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux.

This is partly because diesel accounts for four-fifths of European sales at BMW, almost three-quarters at Daimler and just under two-thirds at Peugeot and Renault. For Fiat Chrysler, diesel is about 43 per cent of European sales.

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Sales figures from France offer a different view of the future. The country was one of the most enthusiastic adopters of diesel, but has recently witnessed a political backlash. Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor, is threatening to ban diesel cars from the capital by 2020 because of concerns over air pollution.

Diesel’s share of monthly French car sales has fallen from 75 per cent in June 2012 to less than 60 per cent in August.

If Europe stages a wholesale shift away from diesel, manufacturers could be forced to make a bigger than anticipated push into electric vehicles in order to comply with the EU’s 2020 targets on carbon dioxide emissions.

But BMW, reflecting a widely held industry view that diesel will continue to play a significant role, says the EU’s 2020 targets “can only be fulfilled through extensive use of modern diesel engines and further electrification [of new vehicles]”.

(c) 2015 The Financial Times Ltd.

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