VW Buggin’ Out

News of Volkswagen’s fraudulent evasion of EPA and EU regulations is astonishing. Emerging facts show that VW sold 11 million cars and trucks that were secretly designed to run clean only when they were being emissions-tested, but to run dirty otherwise. The difference between clean and dirty performance is enormous. Under dirty operation, VW diesels emit up to forty times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than they do under clean operation. NOx is known to cause respiratory problems – sickening and killing many thousands of people each year.

The consequences that VW now faces are no less staggering. In the US alone, where fewer than 5% of the relevant vehicles were sold, potential EPA fines exceed $18 billion. Individual states might also sue, and about 25 class-action suits on behalf of consumers have already been initiated. Criminal prosecution is also a possibility.

VW officials have admitted to covertly incorporating a “defeat device” in some of its diesel engines. According to EPA regulations,

(§86.1803-01) Defeat device means an auxiliary emission control device (AECD) that reduces the effectiveness of the emission control system under conditions which may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal vehicle operation and use….

VW isnt the first automaker to get caught trying to sneak one past EPA. In the 1990s, Ford, GM, and several truck manufacturers paid fines for employing similar cheats, to misrepresent vehicle emissions for the benefit of EPA, while enabling those vehicles to have far better fuel economy than they could have otherwise attained.

And thus we come to our point. Lots of waste comes out of a car’s tailpipe, and present technology allows us to make tradeoffs between different kinds. In many cities – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, London, Paris and Beijing, for example, where air pollution is a problem – we prefer to minimize the release of NOx. But we pay a price with diminished fuel economy, releasing significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile driven. While NOx directly harms human health, CO2 contributes to global warming. And there are many parts of the world that arent given to air pollution, where it would be preferable to allow cars to achieve better fuel economy, releasing more NOx, but less CO2.

EPA has always taken a one-size-fits-all approach to automobile emissions, which is reasonable, given that cars are mobile. A car sold in Florida, which has good air quality, can readily find itself in California or New York. But today, used in conjunction with a GPS sensor, VW’s engine software could be husbanded for a good purpose. Depending on a vehicle’s location and the time of year, an engine could alternatively tune itself to achieve the highest possible fuel economy – releasing the least possible CO2 in areas where NOx pollution is not a health hazard – but then tune down to minimize NOx release in localities where air quality is problematic, accepting poorer fuel economy as a tradeoff.

We arent excusing VW for its considerable wrongdoing. Rather, we’d take this occasion to consider the options that modern engine technology affords us, in light of our competing environmental objectives.


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