The real casualty behind the Volkswagen saga

Image: Kyle Szegedi

If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Volkswagen Group’s line of Clean Diesel cars seemed to achieve the impossible: the unbeatable fuel economy of the diesel engine, paired with the exciting driving experience of the petrol motor. Stunned reviewers awarded ‘Green Car of the Year’ to Volkswagen Group Clean Diesels in both 2009 and 2010. It looked like Volkswagen had simply engineered away all the problems of diesel cars. Clean Diesels were fuel efficient, fun to drive, and met governmental standards for pollution.

This week, consumers found out the truth behind this engineering magic: Volkswagen had completely ‘manufactured’ the environmental performance of these cars. Reports show that some Volkswagen and Audi Clean Diesels can discharge over forty times America’s legal limit for harmful particulates.

To get these cars on sale, Volkswagen Group cheated the emissions tests. With the Type EA 189 Diesel engine, software was installed that allowed cars to recognize governmental pollution tests. The evaluation procedure for diesel cars involves testing the car at certain speeds for specific durations of time and also by performing exact manoeuvres. By writing all these details into the car’s firmware, certain models of Volkswagens and Audis were able to perceive when they were undergoing the testing processes. The car would then turn on emission-reducing systems so that it would meet the legal requirements. On the road, reportedly for better performance, these systems would then switch back off, and the car would then emit incredibly high amounts of pollution.

While diesel engines release less carbon dioxide than their petrol equivalents, they emit other pollutants and particulates that greatly contribute to air pollution. Diesel cars only sell well in Europe, where cities have been struggling with maintaining clean air. In March of this year, dangerously high pollution levels led to Paris being completely engulfed in smog. The city chose to blame the diesel engine, and enforced a temporary ban on many drivers while making public transport free for the duration of the restrictions.

The scale of Volkswagen Group’s deceit is huge: it is reported that 11 million vehicles are affected worldwide. The most concerning particulate from diesel engines is NOx — the term given to cover nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions — which can lead to worsened breathing troubles in exposed populations. The Guardian reports that the extra NOx emitted from these vehicles could even equal the total amount of NOx given off from the UK’s power stations, industrial activity, and agriculture.

Volkswagen Group has committed a gross environmental crime, and they have hired the same law firm BP used during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. What we have just seen is what we have all thought inevitable: the fading out of the diesel engine. Governments were already beginning to consider banning or inhibiting older diesel models from entering busy city centers, but the Clean Diesel scandal implicates many new cars. The automobile industry is one on the eve of vast shifts towards more environmentally friendly hybrid and electric models, with distant whispers of self-driving cars. Whether they wanted to or not, Volkswagen Group has reminded us that the main reason the auto industry is undergoing such shifts is not because of passenger comfort or diving performance, but because we need to do this for the environment’s sake.

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