Larry P. Vellequette
Larry P. Vellequette
Chrysler Group reporter

Can today's diesels erase Olds memories?

Other blogs
Related Topics

I've been wondering lately just how long it takes sustained execution to erase previous experience.

Or put another way: What's the statute of limitations on reputation?

The catalyst for this exercise is Chrysler Group's reintroduction this year of diesel engines in its lineup, first in the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and later in the Ram 1500 pickup.

I'm a diesel fan. As a mature technology with room for development, it holds promise to increase fuel economy without giving up the performance that North American drivers expect.

But no matter how well-designed and efficient modern diesel engines are, for many consumers, the very word still conjures up horrible memories from General Motors' disastrous foray into passenger diesels in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

GM tried to transform an engine block designed for gasoline into a diesel engine for its Oldsmobile line. The results were horrendous and so widely reported that they single-handedly killed development of diesel powertrains at other automakers for a generation or more.

It has been 35 years since those Oldsmobile Eighty-Eights and Ninety-Eights debuted -- and probably 25 years since the last one died. Yet the doubt sowed by that bad experience still colors the marketplace. I would bet money that soot-stained images of those old Olds will cross the minds of consumers who are shown a new diesel Grand Cherokee, even though the two could not be more dissimilar.

If you think about it, the same thing is likely to happen in the future with today's electric powertrains. And maybe someday with fuel-cell vehicles.

Time, money and engineering should one day allow us to scoff at the range limitations of today's EVs. I'm sure we will be able to laugh at the thought of being left stranded on the roadside, miles from the nearest recharging station where -- at best -- it would take four hours to go any farther. Perhaps the only difference is that with so many alternative powertrain options under development today, tomorrow's memories won't be quite so concentrated.

Maybe it's time to rethink how long we let bad experiences with early innovative automotive thinking color our judgments about future product developments.

Unlike those old Oldsmobiles, modern diesels work -- and so will future EVs, given enough time.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.

Or submit an online comment below. (Terms and Conditions)




Rocket Fuel