• Charles Pennefather

Diesel will make an exit – and a comeback – in 2020

There’s a ton of news you’ll read about if you’re even remotely interested in automobiles, about how the government has planned to skip the BS 5 emission norms and go directly to BS 6, which is on par with European norms.

This is a great move to reduce pollution – if it weren’t for the fact that it affects, well, a minority of the population. As per a 2016 census, 11 per cent of Indian households own a car, and 36 per cent of households own a two wheeler. Yes, the absolute numbers are large ones, but those figures show that we still aren’t a first-world country, and adopting a policy that works for a developed country won’t really work. This is most evident in our adoption of electric vehicles, but that’s a post for another day.

Back to the topic at hand – all the auto manufacturers are shunning diesel like it’s suddenly radioactive. It always was a dirty fuel, and Indians always preferred buying it simply because it worked out better financially for them. In terms of fuel consumption and resale value, it was a win-win. However, BS 6 will make diesel variants a lakh more expensive compared to petrols, which means demand for them, especially in small cars, will plummet.

But what is one lakh to someone who is willing to purchase something worth Rs 50 lakh? There it isn’t the consumer sentiment but the manufacturer’s lack of faith in the implementation of the new fuel supply that is the stumbling block. The government has always set a deadline, and never met it. Simply put, this is the way we are and always have been. The difference this time is that if you put BS 4 diesel into a BS 6 car, that engine will not work. It will need time consuming and expensive repair work to put it right. And since diesel cars are the kind of vehicles that are usually run in all corners of the country, the manufacturers can’t risk the negative publicity that they will get simply because the government or the fuel providers neglected to update the fuel at the nozzle in time. It is easier and safer for them to simply shut down the diesel models until they are sure that the fuel is available everywhere. Look at it from the point of view of the consumer – he’ll pay an extra lakh for the car, then it’ll turn out that it is unreliable. He won’t care what the fuel was. Diesel is diesel, right?

Another interesting side note is the kind of usage we have with our cars. A lot of customers don’t drive anywhere but to and from work, in peak traffic. That is really bad for the particulate filters that will be a part of the BS 6 diesels, and the only solution is to let the car run for a while on the highway. Indian consumers aren’t much bothered about educating themselves about what the machine needs, so this will be an interesting problem for the manufacturers as well.

By the end of 2020, however, the problem of availability of the right fuel should be sorted out and we’ll see the reintroduction of diesel models for all except the lowest priced cars.

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