Currently reading: Diesel sales set to slump due to pollution fears - Autocar investigation
Autocar-backed research shows concerns over diesel emissions could boost hybrid and electric sales
James Attwood, digital editor
6 mins read
27 June 2017

The demand for diesel cars is set to slump due to concerns over emissions and pollution, according to a survey commissioned by Autocar, with more than a sixth of all motorists planning to buy a hybrid or electric car next.

In the wake of ongoing controversy about emissions and the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal, Autocar teamed up with leading survey research advisor Simpson Carpenter to conduct a study on the attitude of motorists towards diesel engines. More than 1000 interviews were undertaken for the study in May.

Diesel engines: your questions answered

The results show that despite diesels currently accounting for around four in 10 cars on UK roads, just 23% of motorists plan to buy a diesel as their next car. Notably, more than half of all current diesel owners plan to switch to another fuel type.

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The survey results showed that diesel owners currently comprise 38% of UK motorists, while just 2% of motorists owned a hybrid or electric machine.

But when asked what type of engine their next car was most likely to be powered by, less than one in four said they intended to buy a diesel. That drop contrasts sharply with a surge in demand for battery cars – 17% of motorists say their next car will be hybrid or electric-powered.

The survey also shows that current diesel owners are turning away from the engine format. Just 46% of drivers who currently own a diesel intend to replace it with a car featuring the same engine type, while 22% say they will invest in a hybrid or electric car.


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Tom Simpson, the managing director of Simpson Carpenter, said: “Car owners are predicting a major change in their buying behaviour. If they follow through on these intentions, it will give the industry a real headache.”

The survey results are backed by the most recent sales figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), which showed diesel registrations in May 2017 fell 20% year-on-year. A total of 81,489 diesels were registered in May, compared with more than 101,000 in the same month last year.

According to our survey, the fall in diesel demand will be seen in both the new and used car markets. Of those surveyed who currently drive a used car, 36% run diesels – but just 23% of those intending to buy used next time say they will buy a diesel.

Simpson noted that purchase intentions often differ from actual buying behaviour, and that the relatively limited supply of new and used hybrid and EV cars could be a constraint on any extra demand.

Emissions concerns key to diesel demand slump

When asked which engine types they had entirely rejected for their next car, 30% of motorists said they had ruled out a diesel engine. 

The only engine type to be ruled out by more buyers was electric (32%). Just 15% of motorists said they had rejected hybrid cars.

When those motorists who said they had ruled out buying a diesel engine were asked for their reasons why, a massive 73% cited concerns over higher levels of pollution and emissions, and 41% citing future resale values.

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Diesels were also seen as substantially more harmful to the environment than petrol engines, and as emitting the most CO2 and NOx. When asked about specifically about Euro 6-standard cars, 47% of respondents said that diesels were a little or a lot worse for CO2 emissions than petrol engines. Just 18% thought that petrol cars emitted more CO2.

Simpson said the survey results highlighted misunderstanding over the emissions of petrol and diesel-engined cars. “Right now there’s a lot of confusion in the market about diesel cars’ impact on the environment – they’re widely thought of as more harmful to the environment than petrol".

“As well as being seen as worse than petrol for NOx and particulates, they’re wrongly blamed for emitting more CO2 than petrol. The fact that this holds true even for diesel owners’ views about Euro 6 cars shows the extent of this confusion.”

Simpson noted that the high level of concern over diesel resale values – linked to the falling demand for the engine type – could also significantly impact the market.

He added: “Concern about future resale values is very important – and it’s a fear that can affect those who are less concerned about the environment and spread the move away from diesel.”

Motorists still opposed to diesel penalties

Although motorists are moving away from diesel engines, there is still a high level of resistance to introducing measures that penalise diesel owners. 

The survey asked motorists to show their support or opposition for four measures to reduce air pollution: banning older diesels from city centres, higher in-city congestion charges for older diesels, increased tax on diesel fuels and banning all diesels from city centres.

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The only measure that received a majority of support was banning older diesels from city centres, which was backed by 56% of motorists – while being opposed by 44%.

Of those polled, 68% were opposed to banning all diesels from city centres (with 33% in favour), 60% were opposed to increasing tax on diesel fuel and 55% were against higher city congestion charges for older diesels.

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Related to that, when asked to cite the most polluting vehicle types in major city centres, private diesel engines were only ranked fourth, behind delivery vans and trucks, buses and taxis.

Simpson said: “A chink of light is that people blame commercial vehicles, buses and taxis more than diesel cars for the high levels of pollution in city centres, which goes some way to explain the limited support for measures penalising diesel drivers.”

Support for diesel scrappage scheme

The respondents to the survey backed the prospect of a scrappage scheme for owners of older diesel cars, with 74% giving their support for one that encouraged drivers of such cars to trade them in for machines that meet the latest emission standards. 28% opposed or strongly opposed such a scheme.

The introduction of a scrappage scheme limited to people in major urban areas was supported was supported by 57% of motorists, with 63% supporting one for those who replaced an older diesel with an electric car.

How the survey was done

Simpson Carpenter conducted 1028 online interviews with a sample of British car owners between 12 May and 22 May. Quota controls were imposed and data weighted to ensure the sample was representative in terms of fuel type, engine size and age of car.

The industry response

The SMMT responded to the survey by highlighting the ongoing attributes and popularity of the latest Euro 6-standard diesel engines on sale.

“Diesel cars continue to be a popular choice for consumers in the UK," said Tamzen Isacsson, SMMT Director of Communications and International.

"Almost one in every two new cars registered is a diesel, with buyers valuing their high performance and low fuel consumption. In 2016 more diesel cars were registered than ever before and March 2017 was the biggest ever month for diesel purchases. Manufacturers are investing billions to develop a range of low-emissions technologies to give consumer choice. Vehicles on sale today have never been cleaner or safer – from advanced Euro 6 diesels and petrols, to hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles. Each serves a different need, reflecting the differing demands of motorists and the type of journeys they undertake.” 

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27 June 2017
People are stupid. Diesel is no worse for the environment now than it was when everyone thought they were saving the world by driving one. If the government stokes up eco worries and says that CO2 is the issue then people believe them. Global warming is the biggest tax con ever.

27 June 2017
Winston Churchill wrote:

Diesel is no worse for the environment now than it was when everyone thought they were saving the world by driving one.

However that doesn't mean that it isn't true that diesel is harmful for the environment. How to resolve that conundrum? Simple, earlier it was decided to de-emphasize NoX emissions and focus on smaller CO2 emissions of diesels. So the argument was, that diesel warms the planet to a lesser degree than petrol, due to smaller fuel consumption of diesels. However while NoX emissions were thus de-emphasized at the time, those now have come now into focus. As after all they're harmful for lungs -- meaning increasing numbers of diesel cars mean greater people are harmed in that regard. So who was wrong at the time? Let's put it this way - in USA NoX emissions were never de-emphasized. Instead, diesels have never been major sellers in USA in passenger cars, due to them being penalized in the USA dues to NoX emissions. As a result the dominant form in the USA of cars with small fuel consumption has become the petrol electric hybrid. Which perhaps is the state of affairs that always ought to have been! We'll just have to agree to disagree about global warming being a hoax.

27 June 2017
Not that simple olde bean!

Whilst I agree we need to clean up the air as best we can, current political and media hyped up demonisation of diesel is NOT going to do it.

50% of ALL urban Nox in UK (2014) from euro 1-3 PETROL cars! Yes from ALLsources so combi boilers, power stations and even diesel cars!

Modern DI Petrols push out 10 times more ultra fine particulates than current diesels. No petrol PT traps.

Ammonia is the only pollutant not going down in the UK and NH3 is actually rising in central London as Hybrids, PHEVs and petrols replace diesels.

If we reduce NOx we increase local Ozone - so lungs don't win.

As for the 40,000 deaths! Name one autopsy report that delaires primary cause is NOx.

The Hatfield A1 M study by the University of Herts has revealed the real problem is #vehilceobesity bigger cars more drag more fuel burn over 40 mph, heavier cars more PM from tyres, brake dust etc.

Wider cars, more congestion, less room for cyclists, less filtering at T junctions or past right turner, less parking space.....

As for older diesels - pre 2005 models actually put out less NOx than those up to latest Euro 6 spec !

Still getting 85 mpg from Audi A2 1,2 TDI with 1/4 million on the clock. #scrappingisewasteful

We can clean up exisitng cars: #pluginretrofit engine blcok heaters eg: DEFA, Dropin diesel fuel replacement #HVO see NESTE Finland made from waste - more MPG, much lower PM and NOx

As for LPG adn CNG: higher consumption , heavier tanks, higher CO2, similar PM and CH

27 June 2017
Winston Churchill wrote:

People are stupid. Diesel is no worse for the environment now than it was when everyone thought they were saving the world by driving one. If the government stokes up eco worries and says that CO2 is the issue then people believe them. Global warming is the biggest tax con ever.

It's a bit unfair to say people are stupid: i) companies lied about true emissions from their cars, ii) we have learned more about the impact of nox and iii) petrols / hybrids / FEVs have become more efficient / better alternatives.

So 10 years ago you buy a diesel today consumer preferences are changing - makes total sense.

27 June 2017
Outlander PHEV gets 28 mpg real world on petrol and that excludes all electrickty emissions and consumption!

2 year old ones now suffering rust & brake problems.

NMW i3 60Ah BEV: 41 mile range in mild english winter - that's with preconditioning (aka heater outside your house).

Pollution is national and international. It depends on the weather system eg: 2016/17 winter 3 weeks of High pressure, minimal sunlight, minimal wind. Temperature inversion at about 3000' so all pollution trapped. Oslo blamed diesel drivers and banned them for a week - had ZERO effect!

Worst AQ in UK 2014: Same situation - Affected most of nation! Mostly NOx and PM from space heating, Industry and electricity generation. A combi boiler doesn't even do 13.4 mph (London's average speed).

27 June 2017
man made global warming via CO2 output is debatable but man polluting and toxifying the environment is definitely true..

27 June 2017
mpls wrote:

man made global warming via CO2 output is debatable but man polluting and toxifying the environment is definitely true..

Evidence please.

27 June 2017
will determine buyers' and fleetowners' attitude toward diesel. What happens if nobody wants them anymore in say 10 years time?

27 June 2017
I could have told Autocar all the above and would have charged a lot less for it!

27 June 2017
search for " batteries-hydrogen-wrong-question

Shell just promised H2 and CCS outlets in UK


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