Gaming the system


When I first heard Volkswagen’s catch phrase “clean diesel” a few years ago, I thought it sounded like typical marketing hyperbole, and didn’t give it much credence.

Maybe VW engineers had developed technology that would better filter some of the diesel emissions, and the result would be superior to an 18-wheeler spewing black particulates from its smokestack-style exhaust pipe.

But “clean diesel”—in my admittedly quick and dirty assessment—was an oxymoron. Kind of like “sanitary landfill.” Diesel is not clean, not now, not ever. After a minute of contemplation, if that, I went on about my business.

Now, here we are some years later, and it turns out I was more correct in my quick assessment than I ever would have imagined.

Volkswagen hadn’t just been practicing marketing hyperbole. It had been knowingly and wantonly gaming the system.

Diesel versus gasoline

The good thing about diesel, as compared to gasoline, is that it contains about 30 percent more energy per gallon than gas, so diesel vehicles get better mileage. Even though diesel is generally higher priced than gasoline, due to worldwide demand and higher taxation, diesel users, particularly those who do a lot of driving, can still save considerable coin.gas-prices

Diesel fuel requires less processing than gas, and is multi-purpose, so economies of scale make manufacturing cheaper than gasoline, thus can be more profitable for producers. Burning diesel even generates less carbon dioxide than gasoline, so in theory makes less of an impact on climate change.

However, burning diesel fuel emits exponentially more nitrous oxide into the atmosphere than gasoline. Nitrous oxide is toxic and, in volume, can cause all kinds of health problems with humans and other living things.

Since the 1970s, in contrast with Europe, the U.S. has imposed far stricter rules on pollutants such as nitrous oxide. Until recently, few diesel automobiles could pass America’s stringent emissions standards.

Could technology help?

Volkswagen, however, appeared to have figured out how to mitigate diesel pollution and meet those stringent standards. Since 2009, the company has been touting its four-cylinder TDI (turbocharged direct injection) “clean diesel” engines that power its popular Jetta, Golf, Passat, and Beetle models.

TDI-engineAs a consequence, VW has sold nearly a half-million diesel cars in the U.S. in that timeframe.

Technological improvements supposedly included a number of changes to help reduce emissions, such as complex exhaust gas recirculation systems, water-cooled intercoolers, and exhaust after-treatment components.

What VW did not mention, however, was the software code built into the computer control system in TDI engines to defeat emissions testing.

According to a detailed article in Vox, Volkswagen controller software tracked steering and pedal movements. When those movements suggested that the car was being tested for nitrogen oxide emissions in a lab, the car automatically turned its pollution controls on. The rest of the time, the pollution controls were switched off.

And with those pollution controls off, the nitrous oxide emissions found in the testing labs increased by 1500-3500 percent, depending on the vehicle.

Hard lessons

The scandal has only recently emerged, but already VW is facing enormous repercussions. Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Volkswagen had willfully violated the Clean Air Act, and ordered VW to fix the affected vehicles. The EPA ultimately could levy fines as high as $18 billion on VW, and the Department of Justice is reportedly considering criminal charges.EPA-logo

VW’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn has resigned, and the company has suspended U.S. sales of its 2015 and 2016 TDI-equipped vehicles. In addition, the company took a charge of $7 billion against revenues, and its stock price is tanking, having lost almost a third of its value in recent days.

Oops. Now, VW is trying to mitigate the damage, but methinks it’s a bit late for that.

We’ve said it before in these pages: technology can be used for good, or it can be used for evil.

Clearly, we continue to need watchdogs like the EPA to monitor and punish those who do the latter. Given this recent scandal, the EPA should double down on enforcing our environmental regulations.

Otherwise, corporations like Volkswagen will put profits above people just about every time.

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