What The EV Industry Can Learn From The 350 Diesel

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Years ago, I would regularly visit my grandfather and grandmother about 60 miles away from home. When I got an EV, my grandfather offered to let me plug it in to help cover the cost of visiting, and I was happy to let him do that. He even worked with me to wire up a 240-volt plug in his garage to get faster charging! He seemed pretty supportive of my EV.

So, I was a little taken back when my grandfather said, “Well, I’m never going to drive one of these electric cars, just like I’d never drive a diesel car.”

To the untrained and unfamiliar ear, that might sound like a jab against EVs, but you have to learn some of the backstory to understand why he’d say this about not only EVs but diesels. After all, diesel is like the opposite of an EV in many people’s heads. Diesel is what powers semi-trucks, large buses and RVs, and everything else that’s great and American, right? It takes a diesel engine to roll coal!

But, in the U.S. market, diesel hasn’t always held this pristine image that the pro-ICE crowd sees it having today. More importantly, the story of how diesel engines betrayed a generation of drivers and left them distrustful of the technology has some important lessons for the EV industry today.

When Diesels Sucked In The United States

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, drivers were struggling with high gas prices like they often do today. Car companies were experimenting with EVs, but the battery technology sucked and computer technology wasn’t ready to do something like a plugin hybrid yet. But, diesel engines are a little more efficient than most gasoline engines, and they were successful for smaller vehicles in Europe, so GM and other manufacturers tried to bring higher MPG diesel vehicles stateside.

Many car buyers, including one of my grandfather’s friends, loved the idea. I mean, who doesn’t want to pay less for fuel? But, he was shocked when my grandfather (who sold cars in those days) refused to sell him a diesel car without an extended warranty. Like today, extended warranties were often a bit of a scam dealers could use to make some extra money on cars that were generally pretty reliable, and the man thought my grandfather was trying to con him, despite being a friend.

What the man didn’t know was that the first diesel buyers had been having a lot of trouble with their cars. Because he’d been seeing this, he started trying to turn people away from them or insist on a warranty so that they wouldn’t be out of a car if the engine failed just past warranty, and warranties were pretty short in those days! It wasn’t long before his friend, who had reluctantly and angrily bought the car with the warranty, called him to thank him. Not long past the warranty period, the diesel engine had catastrophically failed, and the warranty meant the dealer had to put a new engine in.

The reason GM’s diesels sucked so badly was that they rushed them to production and cut some important corners. One engineer warned GM that the design wasn’t ready, but they ignored his warnings and forced him into early retirement. The problem? GM started with a gasoline V8 engine design, but refused to upgrade the head bolts to compensate for the much higher pressures involved in pressurizing fuel into combustion instead of starting the combustion with a spark plug. All of this extra pressure was causing failures. On top of that, other oversights like leaving out water separators led to other engine problems.

On top of that, GM made the poor choice of introducing a weaker but lighter version of their otherwise decent transmissions. The new THM-200 suffered failures behind all kinds of engines, but the extra strain from the low-end torque of the 350 diesel meant an even higher failure rate. 

Sadly, in many cases the owner of a dead diesel car was forced to have a mechanic swap the whole drivetrain out for a gasoline engine and a more reliable THM-350 transmission. A class action lawsuit eventually forced GM to pay 80% of the cost of replacing early diesel engines with later, improved designs that worked well. But, by then it was too late to save GM’s diesels. Sales plummeted and didn’t improve after reliability was fixed, and by 1985, it was gone from the lineup.

Overall, the biggest problem was that the reputation for bad reliability and life damaged the reputation of passenger car diesels in the United States for decades after. Until the mid 2010s, when Volkswagen introduced “clean diesels” (which were later shown to be cheating on emissions), people were afraid of diesels in smaller cars from all manufacturers. Some even say that Olds diesels were responsible for modern lemon laws.

EVs Can’t Afford To Repeat This Experience

While EVs can’t suffer from damaged head bolts the way a poorly-designed diesel engine can, we know that they can suffer from other design ailments, both in and out of the vehicle itself.

Probably the worst example were early Nissan LEAFs. Lacking liquid cooling, early LEAFs suffered rapid and terrible degradation in warmer environments, losing half of their range in only a few years. Later LEAFs, like the one I had, suffered from overheating, poor charging speeds, and eventually some battery cell problems in hotter states. I’ve seen photographs from a dealer tech of cells broken open and leaking inside the battery compartment. So, liquid cooling is essential.

We’ve also seen a number of serious problems at charging stations. Bad power modules, faulty software, and many other issues have cropped up on multiple networks in recent years. This has led to distrust of EVs by many people, despite more recent improvements on most networks.

Another terrible example were Chevrolet Bolt fires. While this has been resolved and actual bad cells turned out to be pretty rare, it still left a lot of people feeling terrible at EVs.

None of this has been bad enough to seriously hurt EV sales, but things can still go wrong in the future as more players get into the game and existing players go to higher volumes. We can’t afford for more hiccups like this, and need to be pretty vigilant about reliability going forward. 

Featured image: a screenshot from an old GM ad for the diesels. Fair Use.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 2018 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba