Audi backed clean diesel when clean diesel wasn't cool

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Now that more than half of the Audi A3s sold in the United States are clean-diesel Turbo Direct Injection models, and about one-third of sales of the Audi Q7, it’s difficult to imagine that becoming the leading advocate for clean-diesel propulsion in the U.S. market was a dicey decision for Audi of America.

But then you talk to Allen Schaeffer and are reminded that Audi’s backing of clean diesel comprised a major gamble when it first took shape several years ago.

Schaeffer is executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, and he was there in the mid-2000s when any hopes for a renewal of diesel power trains in the American market were only tailpipe dreams. He recalls an incident at the famous Sebring raceway in Florida where Audi technology helped define the future of clean diesel.

“Everyone was wondering about the future of diesel in the U.S. marketplace,”he remembers. “It wasn’t at all clear. California had divergent, tough standards. Manufacturers were sitting out the California market also because they didn’t have access to the clean-burning fuel they would need to even provide the opportunity to see if diesel could be certified in California and could enter the marketplace there.”

But at Sebring, the head of the California Air Resources Board was touring the pits to get peeks at some of the advanced technologies on race cars that could come into play someday to help make California’s air cleaner. And, Schaeffer said, the CARB official “saw in the Audi pit a particulate filter that helped him envision what diesel could become – a technology for the masses.

“I firmly believe that his impressions carried into the thinking of CARB and the acceptance of clean-diesel technology which they then established. He had seen some advanced engineering in Audi’s diesels that was incredibly clean and offered great performance and advanced emissions-control technology. It was a pivotal moment.”

From there, Schaeffer said, Audi leadership on clean diesel continued, in at least two bold ways that helped establish the commercial appeal of the technology: Winning 2010 Green Car of the Year for Audi A3 TDI, in late 2009; and launching its TDI-centric TV ads.

Winning Green Car of the Year, Schaeffer believes, “was pretty significant with the competition, including advanced hybrids and hybrid-electrics. It proved that diesel could have a place even in California’s green-car culture and could, in fact, compete with and even surpass on a total-valuation scale some of these glamorized and sensationalized [electric] technologies that were far from being mainstream – but had the cachet of the support of Hollywood and California ultra-greens.”

Also at the time, Audi began running a diesel-touting advertisement depicting barrels of oil rolling back onto a transport ship because Americans’ clean-diesel adoption would cut the need for oil imports.

And, of course, Audi ran its iconic “Green Police” TV ad during the Super Bowl in early 2010.

“It showed that Audi was willing to promote the clean-diesel concept and the clean-diesel message and was confident enough to put it out there.”

And the rest, as they say, is automotive history.

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