It was a rough start of the year for the UK’s car industry. The latest figures show car sales have fallen for the first time in six years, with diesel sales dropping by almost a fifth last year compared to 2016. While consumers keep shunning polluting diesel cars, sales of electric and hybrid vehicles have shot up by 34 percent.
The message coming from consumers is about as loud as a lorry horn, but somehow the car industry is still failing to hear it. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) - the organisation representing British car makers - have wheeled out the all too familiar explanations for the falling diesel sales. They say it’s the government’s fault for sending out confusing messages. It’s also Brexit’s fault for weakening the pound. And consumers are to blame too for simply having doubts about diesel.
It’s everyone’s fault, but the car industry’s. Over two years after the VW cheating scandal and its aftermath called into question the entire diesel industry’s claims about their cars’ emissions, the motor lobby seems to be still in denial about what happened. Since they failed to own up to their mistakes, it’s no wonder they are failing to regain customers’ trust.
If the car industry genuinely wants to back out of the cul de sac it got itself into, it should start by acknowledging that consumers’ concerns are real and legitimate.
People have good reasons to reject diesel cars. Britain is in the grip of what MPs have described as a “public health emergency” triggered by air pollution. Tens of thousands of lives are cut short every year by toxic air with the worst impacts falling on children, the elderly and those on lower incomes. Diesel vehicles, which are responsible for 90% of air pollution from road transport, are the heart of this crisis. At the same time, while CO2 emissions in all sectors are falling, they remain stubbornly high for transport, showing that the much-touted climate benefits of diesel haven’t materialised.
Both these problems are the direct result of the marketing and production strategies of European car manufacturers. These companies pushed diesel cars because they wanted a return on their investment in the technology. Led by VW, they lobbied hard to make sure EU CO2 and air quality targets for vehicles were as low as possible despite the obvious costs to people and the environment.
They argue that diesel is essential to reduce CO2 emissions but this is nonsense. Japan has no diesel cars and has lower fleet emissions than both the UK and EU because the industry there decided to invest in hybrid technology.
The auto industry also argue that new diesel cars are clean, yet these cars are still allowed to emit almost three times the toxic Nox of petrol cars, the testing regime remains deeply flawed, and new cars that emit up to 18 times over the target standard are still sold every day in dealerships across the country.
It’s now time for the car lobby to catch up with consumers and with some of the companies they are supposed to represent. Toyota has seen the writing on the wall and, building on the strategy followed in their home country, have stopped selling new diesels in Italy, one of Europe’s strongest diesel markets. China, now the biggest car market in the world, has aggressive plans of its own for electrification. In most other markets outside Europe, diesel cars are virtually non-existent and there are rapid shifts towards electric vehicles.
This is the most significant moment for the auto industry since the Model T first rolled off Henry Ford’s production lines a century ago. The market for electric and hybrid vehicles will be in the trillions of dollars and those who move fastest will gain the biggest slice of it. Consumers have seen this future and are embracing it. Now they are just waiting for car makers to join the race.