Not so long ago, we would have found it amazing that in 2005 diesel engines would even merit much discussion — let alone millions of pounds’ worth of investment.
Few would have been surprised to see diesels chugging gracelessly and noisily into the dustbin of history, leaving the field clear for the final showdown between petrol engines and the clean, green power systems of the future — hybrids and, later, hydrogen or electric vehicles.
Yet diesels show no sign of shuffling quietly off the automotive industry stage, especially here in Europe. Indeed, senior figures from Ford and PSA Peugeot Citroën are outspoken in their backing for the credentials of diesel as a technology with plenty more left in the tank.
The car buyers of Europe seem to agree, with diesels accounting for more than half of new sales in several countries. And why not? They are economical to run (especially if you do a lot of motorway driving), as well as being efficient and even, nowadays, quiet. What they are not, of course, is ‘green’ — at least not in the terms the more evangelical proponents of the hybrid and hydrogen power community would use the term.
The European car industry is hopping mad that for all the technical effort that has gone into making diesels more environmentally friendly, they still attract little but frowns and shakes of the head from many.
Hybrids, by contrast, can do no wrong. An explicit example of this is the exemption of hybrids from the London congestion charge, a marketing gift of unprecedented proportions for the hybrid-powered Toyota Prius.
The industry protests, not unreasonably, that with the best of the diesels coming within a whisker of the emissions performance of the hybrids, there is something rather funny going on.
At a time when Ford in particular is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in making the UK its diesel technology hub of the world, this country has a particular interest in how things are going to pan out.
What the case of the congestion charge shows on a small scale is how important the actions of legislators and regulators will be in determining the future of petrol, diesel, hybrid and hydrogen alike.
From the EU to the London Mayor, they will be the ones who set the limits and targets that the automotive industry’s engineers will be left battling to conform to.
Set the bar too low, and we may not see the level of environmental performance improvements that all but the most stubborn sceptics surely agree are necessary. Make the targets too tough, on the other hand, and they risk plunging into turmoil an industry that employs a significant chunk of Europe’s most highly skilled engineers and tens of thousands of other workers.
The bandwagon is rolling for alternative energy right now, and in many respects that is a good thing. But it’s the job of legislators to see through the hype and make decisions based on the facts. Nurture the alternatives by all means, but give diesel technology a fair crack of the whip.