What can you say of the shocking news that Volkswagen devised – and, then, even more embarrassingly, employed – a super-sneaky software hack to make it appear to U.S. government regulators that 482,000 diesel engines it sold here were less polluting than they actually were?
The government alleges that a “defeat device” in VWs and Audis with four-cylinder diesel engines changed engine operation for the purpose of temporarily lowering apparent emissions of NOx -- – but only while being tested by EPA engineers and technicians. Wow.
Oxides of nitrogen are implicated in the creation of ozone and smog, along with the panoply of worst respiratory consequences from burning carbon fuels – asthma, emphysema, etc. -- and are quite rightly regulated by law. Volkswagen apparently broke the law.
In racing you might call such cheating clever. In real life, it’s criminal and there’s no doubt VW will pay a high price. And so they should. Hyundai and Kia recently settled a charge of overstating vehicle fuel economy for $300 million. But surely this is a worse example of regulatory perfidy and diddle.
Perhaps it is this grim revelation’s visceral order of magnitude – six years of diesel engines -- but reflecting on it does two things. First, it reminds us that corporate crime is rarely treated as crime. Good news for corporate criminals, less so for the rest of us. Whatever justice in this case might look it, we have the recent experience of Toyota and GM, both guilty as sin in their respective scandals of faulty product followed by elaborate cover-up, to remind us that such criminal activity is a matter of cost to corporations, not hard time. Fines ($1.2 billion and $900 million, respectively) aside, both carmakers were spared any criminal prosecution of executives.
One fully anticipates a processional of Sergeant Schultz-ian “I know nussing” statements from top VW executives. But with behavior so egregious it’s hard to believe the buck doesn’t stop somewhere higher in the corporate hierarchy than some unsupervised coders. No matter, VW fathers may continue to sleep soundly at night.
The second, more surprising aspect of VW’s outing is that the news might throw the very future of diesel into question. Volkswagen’s been one of the power fuel’s most vocal supporters in the United States, as a right now solution for lowering carbon dioxide emissions – diesel engines in general emit 30% less CO2 than gasoline ones, because they burn less fuel. They’re so confident, they lobby Congress on the subject and along with another German proponent of diesel, Mercedes-Benz, they coined the name for their suite of diesel technologies “Blue Tec.” Yet if it turns out that their cars pollute more in other ways than they let on, their viability needs to be re-explained. And whither Mercedes diesel engines? Do they share the same propensity for lying to the government? For the time being, Blue-Tec (rest assured, green tech was taken) is not so blue anymore.
The news from Europe has been bleak lately, too, as far as diesel’s future is concerned. The regulatory regime – which long favored diesel – appears in the last year turning away from the fuel for health concerns about particulate emissions. One wonders why these concerns – long understood to be serious, but only recently voiced by the French, among others– suddenly have become important, but that is what’s happening. Could diesel really be at a crossroads?
We’d all like to know a little more truth about the relative merits of diesel and gasoline emissions. Those who don’t burn diesel, typically burn gasoline and while we know its exhaust doesn’t pose the severe particulate emissions problem that diesels do, there’s almost nothing in gasoline that’s isn’t a carcinogen or otherwise bad for you, either. If you drink it, it will kill you and guess what if you breathe enough of it post-combustion it will kill you soon enough, too.
Which reminds us, we’re not really going to be out of the woods until we stop burning carbon fuels entirely.
In the meantime, Volkswagen’s unmasking underscores how the world of regulation really works. First the interested industry decries the regulations. Then they help write them. Then they meet the regulations. And then they pat themselves on the back for being so civic-minded and green. Or, as in this case, they don’t meet the regulations. And they pat themselves on the back for being so civic-minded and green. I mean, blue.