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Audi Survey Says More Than Half of Americans Think Gov’t Unfairly Favors Hybrids Over Diesels. But Of Course.

Sections: Fuel Economy, Powertrain

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(Image courtesy Audi)

No surprise: Audi, one of the largest sellers of diesel-powered U.S. passenger cars, says its study shows more than half of Americans believe the government unfairly favors hybrids over diesel automobiles.

According to the press release from Audi, a poll was conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of the German automaker and diesel car purveyor “reveals that a majority of American drivers would support government initiatives aimed at spurring clean diesel vehicle sales in the U.S.” The study surveyed some 2,041 adults across the United States, with 1,629 identifying as “regular drivers, driving their own personal vehicle at least once a week or more often,” the release said. Specifically, the release said the survey showed “57% of American drivers feel the government has unfairly placed its bets in favor of hybrids and electrics over clean diesel vehicles.”

Further breaking down the study results, the release said 65% of American drivers “would be in support of lawmakers’ efforts to make diesel more accessible to the American public” and 66% of drivers “think the government should offer a tax incentive on clean diesel vehicles.”

Audi of America President Scott Keogh said, “Government has set very rigorous standards for future fuel economy, and we believe that clean diesel is perfectly positioned to help us achieve those goals. But, we argue that diesel needs an even playing field set by state and federal governments. Audi believes there are a variety of viable alternative fuel solutions, including electric, but diesel is readily available today. If you take away the disincentives that state and federal taxation policy create, we potentially could see a big uptick in clean diesel vehicles sales.”

Keogh is referencing, at least in part, fuel taxes. Because diesel fuel in America has traditionally been used mostly by large trucks hauling freight, and because those trucks have a proportionally larger impact on the highways that fuel taxes fund, diesel fuel is typically taxed more heavily than gasoline blends. For example, in the state of Tennessee, where I live, a gallon of gasoline carries 39.8 cents of combined state and federal taxes, while a gallon of diesel carries 42.8 cents of combined state and federal taxes. In some states, the difference is wider: In California, gasoline is taxed at 69 cents a gallon, while diesel is taxed 10.5 cents more, at 79.5 cents per gallon.

As a result of those tax differences and a number of other market- and government-related factors we won’t dive into at this juncture, diesel’s added efficiency may not pay off financially for a new car buyer unless they plan to drive the car into the ground over the next decade or more. To that end, the Audi press release offered this from the survey:

Survey results also showed that 59% of 18-34 year old drivers said that if the cost of diesel fuel was on par with gasoline, they would purchase a diesel-powered vehicle. Conversely, only 39% of those 45+ said they would purchase a diesel car over a gas car if there was fuel price parity.

Keogh said, “One of the reasons we are seeing this disparity between age groups may be because younger generations don’t have the same misconceptions about diesel as older generations. The objective is to reward efficiency, and diesel is an efficient alternative available today. We need to level the playing field.”

Again, it’s no surprise to me that Audi would be funding such a survey, nor is it a surprise to me that the automaker would crow about the results survey-takers reported. Ignoring any possibility that the questions asked may have influenced the answers given — something I admittedly can’t say for sure, not knowing how the questions were phrased — I will say I agree with the underlying message of Audi’s release.

Diesel should be taxed differently for different uses. Trucks should pay a higher tax rate than cars because of their larger impact on our roads. They cause more wear and tear, and should pay more into the system to fix bridges and potholes — and I’m saying this as a trucker’s kid who spent three years of his professional life writing press releases for a trucking company. Lowering diesel taxes for passenger automobiles would be a step in the right direction.

But it’s the way government has tripped over itself to give tax breaks and other societal perks — single-occupant HOV lane access, anyone? — to hybrid and EV buyers that really smacks of unfairness. It’s a shortsighted effort to get as many people as possible into hybrids and EVs without giving much consideration to how buying hybrids, with their rare earth-rich powertrains, might be depleting even more precious and/or finite resources than oil.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hybrids. I even get to test quite a few of them. They’ve been a good stop-gap toward the ultimate goal — hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — and the powertrain technology that goes into building them and their EV cousins is nothing short of amazing. But as Audi is all too happy to point out, diesel is still kicking, still getting fuel economy numbers that can embarrass hybrids, and still capable of getting us anywhere we need to go while remaining as clean or cleaner than the gasoline-powered cars that comprise the majority of America’s fleet. Knowing that, and knowing that hybrids now dwarf diesel passenger cars in terms of market share, isn’t it time we put the two powertrain options on an even keel?

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