Are Diesel Cars Disappearing from Britain’s City Roads?

With tougher emission rules on the horizon, do diesel cars have a future in our cities?

Published: 17th February 2017

Despite their positive attributes, such as generally high MPG fuel economies and greater efficiency over their petrol cousins, diesel car emissions can be an issue for busy road networks, particularly with regards to city driving.

London in particular has enacted very strict emissions rules in an attempt to improve air quality and reduce chances of a resurging Victorian smog. But, what are the current rules? And how are diesel cars affected by these rules? ALA GAP Insurance looks at the state of London’s current vehicle emissions, as well as predictions as to the entwined fate of diesel cars in the city.

London’s Emissions History

London’s ‘Great Smog’ in December 1952, an immensely thick and deadly pollutant fog which caused 4,000 deaths in its immediate aftermath and a further 8,000 deaths in the following weeks and months, may have been a catalyst for the modern environmental movement in the UK – it certainly resulted in the formation of the Clean Air Act 1956. The Act shifted the sources of heating available to homes in London away from traditional fuels, and placed the emphasis on smokeless methods of heating and power, such as electricity and gas. Cleaner forms of coal were also recommended in a wide scale attempt to reduce pollution from smoke and sulphur dioxide. Since then, many Acts have come into effect to further clean up the air around cities such as London and reduce the risk of both major and minor health problems in residents.

More recently, the introduction of schemes such as the London Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) in 2008 and the Ultra-Low Emission Discount (ULED) in 2013 have aimed to reduce the tailpipe emissions from diesel-powered commercial vehicles and curb the usage of diesel vehicles on London’s roads – thereby lowering the levels of harmful chemicals. The London LEZ covers most of Greater London and mostly applies to HGVs, minibuses and similar vehicles that don’t adhere to Euro 3 and Euro 4 emissions standards. Though all cars that emit more than 75g/km of CO2 are liable to pay the central London congestion charge, the ULED means that fully electric, hydrogen fuel cell and efficient hybrid cars are completely excused from this charge altogether.

In addition, current London Mayor Sadiq Khan is looking to introduce a so-called ‘T-charge’ to the city which would see owners of older cars more prone to heavier pollution face an additional £10 fee for entering the congestion charge zone.

Why does this affect Diesels?

As we’ve touched upon in our “petrol vs diesel” article, diesel cars are still not as clean as their petrol-run counterparts despite the leaps and bounds that diesel engine technologies have made in closing the gaps. Although diesel fuel provides more energy per litre than petrol and is more efficient to run, diesel produces higher levels of NOx emissions when compared to catalyst-equipped petrol cars, and much higher particulate matter emissions. The particulate matter is a big problem when it comes to driving diesel cars in cities like London as being unable to travel at higher speeds for longer stretches of time can cause their DPFs (Diesel Particulate Filters) to clog up and cause expensive repairs to be necessary. Although DPFs are designed to help prevent harmful smoke from being pumped into the atmosphere and are a requirement on all new diesel cars made after 2009, the soot and subsequent ash they amass and expel still have a big effect on the pollution levels of a busy city.

Electric Car

The Rise of Hybrid and Electric Cars

Due to the problems with city driving and pollution (and government controls on emissions), not to mention public scandals like the Volkswagen “diesel-gate”, consumers are starting to turn away from purely diesel cars – at least when it comes to city driving. Small city cars – ‘superminis’ such as the Skoda Fabia hatchback – are increasingly popular on the streets of London and are more likely to be hybrids (if they’re diesel vehicles at all) or petrol powered.

Hybrid and electric cars have seen a surge in popularity in London in recent years, possibly as a result of the congestion charge leniencies and exemptions should one be used in central London. The demand for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the UK skyrocketed in 2015, rising by 48% and 133% respectively for that year, and demand also increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2016 (up by 41.9% for plug-in hybrids and 3.3% for electric vehicles).

Even diesel cars’ biggest claim of superiority over petrol cars – a more efficient fuel economy – is often dwarfed by hybrid counterparts. For example, the infamous hybrid Toyota Prius is reportedly capable of around 95 MPG whereas the MINI hatchback city car can manage only around 80 MPG according to the manufacturers.

Is there a solution to London’s Emissions Problem?

Despite the soaring popularity of hybrid and electric vehicles, London still sees huge emission problems in a city that nonetheless seems increasingly intolerant of diesel cars. January 2017 saw “very high” pollution warnings issued in London by mayor Sadiq Khan, citing “the shameful state of London’s toxic air.” London also breached its annual air pollution limits within just five days of 2017.

With recent European data revealing that modern diesel cars now produce around ten times more toxic air pollution than heavy trucks and buses (due in part to the more stringent testing on larger vehicles), more crackdowns on emissions are understandably being pushed into effect within the next few years. As NO2 pollution is believed to cause around 5,900 early deaths per year in London alone (and around 40,000 early deaths nationwide), the UK government is being forced to produce a new plan to tackle the air pollution crisis. It can be fairly safe to assume that these plans will involve more restrictions on vehicles with a high level of NOx emissions – namely diesel cars.

For those who drive diesel cars in the city – is there a solution? Switching to a hybrid or an electric vehicle is perhaps the simplest answer to the emissions problem on a personal level, but drivers wanting to make a difference must also take into account their influence on London’s continual congestion issues – and the subsequent build-up of pollution from dirtier vehicles stuck in traffic.

Public transport is also an option for conscientious commuters, however there are the drawbacks of delays, strikes and other hindrances that are out of the commuter’s control. An inability to travel anywhere other than designated stations can also be a negative for those who enjoy the relative freedom that driving a car entails. There are pros and cons to every mode of transport within cities such as London. However, with new limitations on emissions that will heavily affect diesel vehicles due to be enforced within the next few years, there may well end up being more cons than pros to driving diesel in the city. This would undoubtedly see a decrease in the amount of diesel cars on city roads as the alternatives become more and more viable in comparison.

What is the Future of Diesel in the City?

So, what exactly does the future hold for diesel cars in the city? It can be hard to say for certain; diesels are certainly not necessarily going to be disappearing altogether, but new government measures will inevitably have an impact on numbers. It seems certain that diesel technology will be forced to adapt and change further to work more easily within the new regulations, and to restore consumer confidence. They’ll almost certainly end up being less common in cities compared to their hybrid and electric counterparts based on the recent demand trends, but it’s possible that they’ll eventually become a long-journeys-only choice on motorways and the like rather than a viable option within the streets of cities like London.

Diesel cars aren’t dead yet, but it’s easy to see why some may think they’ve got one wheel in the grave.

Click here to read more Entertainment at ALA Connect.

Published: 17th February 2017

Welcome to
ALA Connect
Online resource for motoring news, updates and advice...

How to Buy a Car

Similar articles...