What have they done

By Sean Hua

What's next for VW? EPA/Sebastian Kahnert
Volkswagens are one of the best-selling vehicles to date with over 30 million sold up to June 2013. They conjure an image of quality, style and had a strong reputation; while they’re not quite as posh as a Mercedes, they are considered better than a Ford or Holden (by default) due to their European heritage. VWs have long been seen as fuel-efficient too, so much so they were listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability index. Diesel goes one better than normal, requiring fewer litres per 100km than petrol.

Yes, it is more efficient, translating to fewer dollars required at the pump. I assume this is one of the key deciding factors for buyers. But despite the “ultra-low-sulphur” tag that many new diesel engines have, other pollutants like Nitric oxide and Nitrogen dioxide are still emitted.

Instead of trying to rein these outputs in, VW instead conducted a campaign of wilful dishonesty. The engineers programmed their cars to detect when they were undergoing emissions testing, and produce false outputs at the exhaust. Real world driving produced 30-40 times the emissions of pollutants than test conditions. Now, I’m not an engineer… but if they could rig the engine to produce fewer pollutants at a given time, why not just do it all the time? Or alternatively, if they could spend the time and effort to write such a program, why not dedicate it to actually producing a clean-running engine? It’s a senseless “solution” to a problem they didn’t need to have.

While people will speak about the breach of trust to customers, the cost of the recall, the collapsing share prices etc. the important numbers are the health costs that have resulted. Noelle Sellin of The Conversation estimates a figure upwards of US$100 million in the US alone. In Aussie digits, that’s $141,158,993.41, or approximately 3,900 brand new VW Golfs. When you consider that figure only comes from about half a million US-based vehicles, and that affected cars in Europe number almost 10 million… The costs are staggering.

Last year, I wrote about how diesel-powered cars were being encouraged in Australia to promote better fuel-efficiency and come in line with basic EU emissions standards. At the same time, European countries were taking steps to begin phasing out diesel altogether. To them, the diesel efficiency argument doesn’t stack up to the negative social and environmental impacts that it could generate.

We are perennial followers on environmental standards, dragging our feet and being reactive rather than proactive. This time though, when a corporate body has so blatantly cheated its consumer base with damning health and environmental costs, can we allow such an event without change to our regulations? When we’ve just begun to adopt diesel as a common fuel-type, would it be prudent to abandon it before real traction is gained?

This time, it would really make sense to follow Europe. This time, we should at minimum consider stricter regulations on emissions. But why aim so low? Why not aim for car-free cities like what Paris did for a day (see car-less utopia post), and achieve drastic reductions in pollution? Why not aim for halving pollution, hybrid public transport and zero-emission taxis like London? Why not shift towards active transport and active cities?

Why not lead?


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