- Dieselautos in Deutschland und den USA: Zum Verhältnis von Technologie, Konsum und Politik, 1949–2005
In his revised Ph.D. dissertation under advisor Ulrich Wengenroth, Munich, Christopher Neumaier compares the success of diesel cars in Germany with the relatively lower acceptance and sales of diesel cars in the United States up to 2005. In Germany, diesel engines have been used in cars since 1936 (though only by Mercedes until 1974). In 1981, 10 percent of all cars had diesel engines. This increased to 40 percent in 2003 and to nearly 50 percent in 2010. The sales figures of diesel cars in the United States, however, never went beyond 10 percent. In 2005, they were down to around 3 percent and dropped further, to 2 percent, in 2010. Between 1977 and 1981, the numbers of diesel cars sold rose both in Germany and the United States. From 1981 on, however, the numbers again diverged.
Neumaier aims to identify cultural and political reasons both for the short convergence period during the Carter administration and, more interestingly, for the growing differences in propulsion technology since then. This case study is wonderful, as it underlines the importance of comparative approaches to the history of technology. The mostly technical arguments in the sources lose much of their persuasive power in comparative confrontation, but here we can uncover the cultural, social, and political reasons.
In contrast to technical argument, Neumaier assesses first the obvious economic reasons for the failure of diesel engines in the United States. Diesel fuel has been, and continues to be, more expensive than gasoline in the United States. In Germany, it was considerably cheaper than gasoline for most of the time, partly as a result of political support (e.g., lower [End Page 937] taxes). Therefore, the higher fuel efficiency of diesel engines, when compared with that of Otto engines, counted less in America, even though the absolute differences in volume were higher (i.e., larger cars in the United States). Cars were cheaper on average in America than in Germany and the price difference between diesel and Otto engines thus relatively greater in the United States.
According to Neumaier, these economic reasons alone cannot explain the lesser success of diesel engines in America. The most influential factor, he says, was the contrasting assessment of particulate emissions of diesel engines. In the United States they were considered to be carcinogenic much earlier. This finally “killed” diesel, even though the particulate filter was introduced in America much earlier as well. In Germany, fuel efficiency outweighed health threats for some time, but across the Atlantic, especially after Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, energy efficiency and environment protection were no longer important political issues, which was supported by rapidly dropping oil prices. It is astonishing that Neumaier does not relate the skeptical appraisal of diesel cars in the United States to a “buy-American” sentiment and policy in a period of continuing economic weakness. Most diesel cars were, and continue to be, imported from Germany.
Neumaier is not too ambitious in using theoretical concepts. He offers the social construction of rationality as the theoretical backdrop for his explanations for why American and German car lobbyists and journals opted for or against the diesel car. This approach is simple and accepted, and Neumaier provides considerable evidence that supports the view, looking at a range of different diesel cars, motors, filters, and other devices that answered different legal, political, economic, and societal demands. In the many details Neumaier mentions, however, one can lose sight of the big picture and the central argument.
Auto journals of the two countries are the main sources for Neumaier’s analysis, with only a few archival sources. Two exceptions are the files of the Carter administration (1977–81) in the Carter Library and the Mercedes archives in Stuttgart. These demonstrate how enlightening it can be to look into archives for information on this subject. In addition...