Will Consumers Accept Diesels?

Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Honda are all poised to introduce diesel-powered passenger cars to the United States. With higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy targets from the U.S. Federal Government looming in coming years, all of these companies want to bring to bear the diesel engine’s inherent efficiency -- efficiency that could mark a significant decrease in our use of fossil fuel and a significant increase in the car companies’ ability to hit the mandated fuel economy targets. But a looming question out there is: will American consumers buy in to diesel technology? Frankly, the answer to that question is anything but crystal clear.

A recent study conducted by a well-respected market research firm took a long look at how new-vehicle buyers feel about hybrids, diesels and found a large majority of U.S. consumers do not see diesel as a likely mainstream fuel source in the future. The survey of new-vehicle buyers revealed that only six percent of shoppers think diesel is most likely to succeed in becoming a mainstream vehicle powertrain type. In comparison, 40 percent of new-vehicle buyers thought hybrids would become a mainstream powertrain, 20 percent said the same about hydrogen fuel cells and 17 percent cited flexible-fuel systems as a probable mainstream powertrain of the future. 

That was a major blow to the proponents of diesel vehicles. Several of them have been thumping the tub for diesel for years now, and frankly they were surprised by the findings. More specific consumer perceptions of diesel engines were equally troubling to the diesel advocates. For instance, nearly half of consumers say diesels are “dirty” and “noisy.” In addition, the study showed that shoppers believe that diesel-powered vehicles get poorer fuel mileage than conventional gasoline engines, and fewer consumers see diesels as being “fuel-efficient.”  Finally, the study found that consumers’ perceptions of diesel technology was actually trending downward, not exactly what you’d like to see if you are about to gamble millions, if not billions, on introducing the technology to the American marketplace.

Those companies that are about to bring “clean diesel” to America might well point out that virtually all of these consumer perceptions fly in the face of the reality about the technology. Those of us who have driven a wide variety of clean-diesel-powered vehicles in Europe understand that the best of them are smoke-free, quiet and, most of all, extremely fuel efficient. The important lesson from the survey results is that American consumers don’t know that yet. Further, American consumers have solidly held pre-conceived notions about diesels that are decidedly negative.

To us, this means that the manufacturers who seek to sell diesels in the U.S. must convince a larger portion of the American public that clean diesels are worthy of consideration. And that is not an easy task, since the largely negative consumer perceptions of diesels are strong.