Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Bugs in the Volkswagen System

Oct 7, 2015

Bugs in the Volkswagen System

tags: Volkswagen,regulation,clean air,emissions

It looks like the biggest corporate scandal of 2015 will be the cheating by Volkswagen on emissions tests, which might come to be called Volksgate. The scale is breath-taking. Since 2008 Volkswagen made 11 million diesel cars designed to cheat on emissions tests. These cars could never have passed the tests. They produce 10 to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides.


Cheating on an unprecedented scale was a simple business decision. Volkswagen executives had spent billions to develop a new diesel engine, but executives realized it could not meet the pollution standards of many nations, including the US and Germany. They could have scrapped the new model. Instead they put a software “bug” into the cars’ computers.


The fix was clever. Emissions tests are done under controlled laboratory conditions. The software could sense a test was being conducted by monitoring speed, engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel. Then the engine was put into a kind of safety mode, where power and performance were reduced, cutting down on emissions. Back on the road, the engines were switched to “normal”, chugging out nitrogen oxides. The secret switch is called a “defeat device”. Meanwhile, VW created a huge advertising campaign about its cars’ low emissions.


Staff in the EPA already suspected something was wrong in 2014. An organization devoted to reducing air pollution and slowing climate change, the International Council on Clean Transportation, commissioned West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions to test VW diesel cars. The results showed very high emissions. The EPA questioned Volkswagen, who claimed the results were just a technical problem. Only after another year passed did VW admit it had bugged the cars.


The dishonesty of the top leadership at Volkswagen will be expensive for them – who wants to buy, or even drive, a Volkswagen now? The international bank Credite Suisse estimates the scandal will cost the company from $30 to $80 billion, about the same cost as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


But it’s also expensive for us. There are 500,000 American cars which have been spewing poisonous gases into our atmosphere. Their owners had no idea, but now their cars have lost significant value.


There is a reason for the legal limitations on nitrogen oxides. Every year they kill nearly 6000 people in London alone, and 50,000 people in the US by weakening the heart. That’s now, many years after those and other deadly emissions gases have been limited in the US and Great Britain. Since the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1963, emissions of major pollutants including nitrogen dioxide have been reduced by 72%.


Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press wrote an article published in many newspapers across the country, including here in Jacksonville, quoting scientists who estimate that the extra pollution from VWs will probably cause an additional 5 to 20 American deaths every year. That number comes from complex computer models which consider data about which VWs have been on the road, regional air movements, and disease studies, along with estimates of how much pollution the cars actually spewed out. Hence the large range from 5 to 20 as an estimate.


Who knows how many people will be sicker, what additional medical bills will be incurred, how many hours of work will be lost?


Republicans today hate the EPA, even though it was created by President Richard Nixon. Donald Trump said in 2011 that “the EPA is an impediment to both growth and jobs.” Carly Fiorina says the EPA must “roll back” regulations. Jeb Bush has proposed a sweeping rollback of regulations on the environment and the defunding of the EPA. Ted Cruz has introduced a bill in Congress to prevent the EPA from regulating nitrogen oxide, as well as many other pollutants.


Regulations and regulators save lives. Just between 1980 and 2000, reductions in air pollution led to an increase in life expectancy of 7 months. The government workers in the EPA saved future lives by discovering VW’s cheating.


That truth is buried by conservatives under constant attacks on the EPA. They are right that regulations cost businesses money. Reducing air pollution and preventing oil spills are expensive for giant corporations, who pass their costs to the consumer.


Would we rather live in Beijing, where normal people wear gas masks, people are warned not to go out on bad days, and schools are building artificial domes to keep children away from the air? Should we go back to more polluted air and shorter lives?


Without regulations on our food, our water, and our air, America would be less healthy. Why do Republicans want that?


Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 6, 2015

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