I’ve come to know Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen as a passionate advocate of fuel-sipping diesel engines. That passion was on full display when I sat with de Nysschen at a media dinner in Carneros, Calif. (after test drives of three new Audi models), during which he sharply criticized electric vehicles -- including GM’s Chevy Volt.
He dismissed GM’s upcoming plug-in hybrid as “a car for idiots,” saying that few consumers will be willing to pay $40,000 -- the Volt’s estimated base price -- for a car that competes against $25,000 sedans and conventional hybrids. Nor, he noted, is the Volt a luxury car whose green-technology costs will be excused because it also delivers prestige or performance.
“No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a (Toyota) Corolla,” he said. “So there are not enough idiots who will buy it.”
He did add that plug-in hybrids are good in concept and hold advantages over diesels in stop-and-go driving. But for the moment, de Nysschen noted, electric vehicles (EVs) are more about making a statement.
“They’re for the intellectual elite who want to show what enlightened souls they are,” he said.
De Nysschen expressed frustration with regulators and policymakers, saying the public has been hoodwinked into believing that EVs are the only answer to global warming. The U.S. government, he said, is pouring billions of dollars into EV technology, yet diesel technology could deliver a more immediate and dramatic decrease in global-warming emissions. And the man knows of what he speaks: Modern diesels already power half of Audi’s cars in Europe and have helped Audi dominate recent runnings of the 24 Hours of LeMans. Diesels have been shown to emit 25 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines, while using 25 to 35 percent less fuel.
Mass electrification of cars, he argued, would result in a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions, because so much of America’s electrical grid relies on dirty coal for its energy. Cleaning up the nation’s power grid is the real priority, he said, and only then can EVs make environmental sense.
The Audi of America president ended with a bold prediction: The Volt will fall flat. And the federal government, having publicly forced GM to develop electric cars, will subsidize the Volt to save face and boost sales.
Whether that comes to pass or not, expect de Nysschen to continue to lobby Washington to ensure that diesels get their fair share of federal support.