The demise of the diesel car in the US and its rise in Europe (1973-2006)

Vendredi 17 Février 2012, 12:00 - 14:00 CET

Salle 3, Rez-de-chausée, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Salle Bâtiment Le France, 190-198 Avenue de France – 75013 Paris

Type d'événement: 

Orateur: Christopher Neumaier (Johannes Gütenberg Universität Mainz)
Discutant: Julia Hildermeier (GIS-Gerpisa, ENS-Cachan)

Résumé: Dr Christopher Neumaier has analyzed in his recently published doctoral dissertation the different cultural perception of diesel cars in Europe, in particular Germany, and in the USA between 1949 and 2005.
American car drivers claim that diesel cars are an oddity. They clearly favor gasoline-powered cars and SUVs over diesel vehicles. European consumers, in contrast, have started to purchase an increasing number of diesel automobiles in recent years. Up to now, these developments have merely been explained economically. The deficit in this line of argumentation, however, is that it neglects technology itself, as well as environmental policy, and the users’ perception.
In his doctoral thesis, Christopher Neumaier argues that consumers do not solely act on the basis of a cost benefit analysis. They do not act rational like a homo oeconomicus when purchasing diesel automobiles. They also take other aspects into consideration such as the technological properties, the perception of diesel cars or environmental concerns. He has been able to show when and to what degree these factors contributed to the rise and fall of diesel car sales in both reviewed countries during the second half of the 20th century.
Moreover, he demonstrates that consumers do not follow scientific objective patterns when buying consumer products. They rather interpret scientific facts in culture-specific ways. While the same diesel technology had been available in both countries, a diametrically opposed perception was established during this period.

This presentation aims to show that the negative perception of diesel cars, although a cultural phenomenon, is closely linked to technological factors and that it strongly contributed to waning consumer interest in the USA. In the late 1960s, diesel cars were perceived similarly in both markets. They had a reputation for being sluggish and noisy, but also reliable, and fuel efficient. In the course of the 1970s, the negative attributes diminished due to technological improvements. Unlike in Europe, a mainly positive perception did not prevail in the USA. Around 1981, the public started to attach negative properties to diesels, which held sway until 2006 when the VW Touareg turbo-diesel was presented in The New York Times. The presentation will show that this development, which is crucial to explain the success of diesels in Europe and their failure in the USA, is closely linked to diesel automobiles produced between 1968 and 1985. In 1997, analysts were certain that, apart from gaining ‘renewed economic appeal’, diesel automobiles would have to shed the traditional stigmas associated with them in order to become a market success in the USA. Indeed, one should be aware that automobiles are not only bought for economic reasons but are also ‘valued for the characteristics embodied in them’.

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