Volkswagen Is Caught Defrauding Consumers, Regulators, And The Planet.

Every company wants their products to be the center of attention, and Volkswagen certainly achieved that milestone recently. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Volkswagon was recently caught intentionally cheating on emissions tests in order to trick officials and pass environmental regulations in both Europe and the Unite States. The situation is somewhat convoluted, but this deception was put into place so VW could sell their cars as “low emission vehicles,” and offer better gas mileage, something their cars could not accomplish if they followed regulation. The engines offer up to a 30 percent jump in fuel economy, making them a dream car for many commuters. Or they were up until this revelation.

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The situation is convoluted, appearing more like the plot of a James Bond movie than real life. The issue starts with the pollutant nitrogen oxide, or NOx. According to the EPA, NOx is formed when nitrogen dioxide is burned at high temperatures. Nitrogen oxide pollutants are a major contributor to smog, so diesel cars have to abide by a fairly strict set of rules in order to be used in the US or the EU.

In order to fool the EPA, Volkswagon set up a complicated code in the computer system of the TDI versions of the Golf, Jetta, Beetle, Audi and Passat that only activated the emissions control when being driven on a test track. Cars are tested on a specific course, one that is standard throughout the country. When the car sensed it was being driven on the course (based on speed, course direction, and other markers specific to the test), it would engage the emission controls and appear to be a miracle of low emission technology. When the car hit the open road however, they spewed a horrific amount of NOx into the air. VW’s roughly 482,000 “low emission” cars in the US are actually responsible for between 5,800 and 14,200 additional TONS of NOx than advertised (the actual amount is difficult to quantify). Altogether, there are 11 million or so cars featuring the software, compounding the issue on a massive scale.

One of the larger questions surrounding this abuse is how large the environmental impact actually is. According to the EPA, NOx is responsible for around 0.00085 deaths per ton, although that only accounts for the particulates in the air, not the effects of the smog bred from the pollutant. The math is certainly fuzzy, but even at the low end, we are looking at about 5 extra deaths per year from the extra pollution. Spread that across 11 million vehicles worldwide, and the problem becomes scarier. While there is very little chance  VW will be held accountable for any deaths, it is a moral quagmire that is turning people away from VW in droves.

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VW C.E.O Martin Winterkorn stepped down quickly after the deception was revealed. The company is looking at fines in the US of up to $18 billion (VW had a profit of $12 billion last year for perspective), as well as fixing each car. The fix will lower the gas mileage on the vehicles, opening up class-action suits against the company from angry consumers. Winterkorn also faces the possibility of criminal prosecution in Germany, although the company denies Winterkorn had any knowledge of the program. VW’s stock has continued on a precipitous decline as of this writing, throwing doubts on the companies future.

There is a silver lining in all of this, which is that the EPA is quickly revamping the way it tests vehicles. First off, tests are (potentially) going to move to practical tests instead of lab tests. Taking the cars out on the road and testing them under normal conditions will make it much harder to fool tests. Had any Volkswagen car been tested in that way, the deception would have been caught right away. Ridding the offending cars of the duplicitous software will take time, and an abundance of money, but it should help reduce pollution by a ridiculous amount, although drivers will have to stop for gas more often.

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Details are continuing to come to light, and most likely will for some time. Recalls are underway, and agencies across the globe are preparing ways to combat both the company and the environmental impact from the vehicles. Luckily, there are still amazing alternatives to fossil fuels being rolled out in the automotive industry. Hybrid cars are still a fantastic way to reduce pollutants, and Tessla motors is working on releasing their cars across the country. Toyota is even making their hydrogen battery patent available. Moving towards these options should help to prevent such egregious betrayals in the future. Hopefully.

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