The devil in diesel
The auto industry claims that cars are vilified, but they do not emit flower-scented pure air
It is an abiding irony of modern life that we want our lives to be comfortable, breathe clean air and not worry too much about stuff like Global Warming yet it is these very creature comforts that we cannot do without which are usually the prime culprits in damaging our planet. And this brings us to one of the most remarkable inventions of the late nineteenth century, the internal combustion engine. Nikolaus Otto working with Gottleib Daimler invented the four-stroke engine. It was, however, Karl Benz who was the first to put into production such an engine and subsequently put it on four wheels in a rapidly industrialising Imperial Germany. Daimler and Benz never met, but the company that bears their names still produces cars today; we know it as Mercedes-Benz. The internal combustion engine changed everything and is one of the most important inventions in human history because it removed the tyranny of distance, on land, at sea and in the air. Until the gas turbine engine came along towards the end of World War II, the internal combustion engine powered both development and destruction.
Given their size and increasing efficiency as well as the ability to run on multiple fuel fractions from the crude refining process, internal combustion engines power almost every car, truck and ship on the planet. The fuel economy and power that we have managed to attain from an internal combustion engine is truly stunning. Volvo sells a car in India that produces 235 horsepower from a 1969 cubic centimetre engine while delivering close to 15 kilometres of range for every litre of diesel while hauling a two-tonne car around. This would have been impossible even a decade ago, but advanced computer controllers and software have managed to achieve what purely mechanical components could not. It is also true that modern engines, whether they run on petrol or diesel are not just more efficient but also pollute much less than their predecessors even from a decade ago. But it is also a fact that the number of cars, trucks and motorcycles on the streets have shot up in the preceding decade, particularly in India, despite the often punitive rates of taxation on vehicles. At the same time, some carmakers have been caught lying about the amount of pollutants their engines, particularly diesel engines, emit. People have also become more aware about the perils of climate change, not just because of images of polar bears sinking in the Arctic but because of extreme weather events across the world. While there are several causes for air pollution, such as the rising number of thermal power plants, rampant and uncontrolled construction, crop stubble burning and the like, there is no doubt that vehicular pollution plays an important role in increasing pollution. It is, therefore, contingent upon the auto industry across the world to address this problem, and India’s decision to move towards full electrification of vehicles is a welcome idea. However, in a country unable to provide reliable power to all her citizens today, that might remain a pipe dream. Without reliable personal and public transport and a means for cheap transportation of goods India will almost certainly come to a standstill. The solution, therefore, at least in the short-term, is to continue developing more efficient and cleaner engines and phasing out more polluting fuels like those used by large container ships. Vitally, we must continue to invest in safe, quick and eco-friendly modes of public transportation without which car and motorcycle sales will continue to climb.
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