The VW Bug

I should come clean here and admit that I was involved in the sale of a VW TDI myself. In 2010 I received the following email: "Dear n+1 car guru, I need to buy a car! What's your assessment of the Prius vs. the new clean-diesel VWs? I look to you..."

On diesel and scandals

Image from VW's "Mom," commercial, via YouTube

Watching the VW scandal unfold over the Day of Atonement had me thinking about automakers and their many sins of omission and sins of commission. It also had me remembering my British bike rides.

While living in London I tried cycling to work. It wasn’t a green thing. My usual mode was the Tube from our West London neighborhood of Ealing to the Science Museum in South Kensington. I just wanted to supplement the health benefits I was already deriving from pints of warm beer. The seven or eight mile journey offered intimacy with London’s neighborhoods. But I quit after a handful of trips that left me feeling like a black-lunged coal miner. Better to ride the Tube and drink pints of bitter to my health.

Diesel engines were the culprit. They spew smog, the tiny particles and chemicals that mix with the air to irritate the lungs. Gasoline engines do this too but, for complicated reasons, are not nearly as offensive to breathing as diesels. It used to be obvious that diesels were dirty. Anyone who has seen a bus or an Energy Crisis–era diesel car pull away from a stoplight has seen the black cloud. Worse, to drive a diesel used to mean living with anemic acceleration. Zero to 60? Eventually. But modern “clean diesels” have removed those flaws. VW’s TDI (turbocharged direct injection) diesels can match the acceleration of gasoline cars without the black smoke or smell of their forebears. Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker by sales revenue, has made a major push to convince Americans that diesels are a way to enjoy high mileage without compromises. Volkswagen lied. By jiggering their engine control software, VW ensured that their cars could spew ten to forty times the legal limit of lung-scraping nitrogen oxide (NOx) and still ace EPA tests.

NOx can cause emphysema, bronchitis, and, in the EPA’s eerie phrase, “premature death.” It reacts with moisture and other compounds already in the air to form dust so fine that it penetrates deeply into the lungs. Sunlight can also cause NOx to react with other pollutants, leading to the formation of ground-level ozone, additional respiratory ailments and, of course, “premature death.” Gasoline engines emit NOx too, just not as much as diesels. Gasoline cars also have effective catalytic converters that reduce emissions of all sorts. Most diesels, such as those in heavy trucks, BMWs, and Mercedes, have to control emissions by carrying a tank of urea—essentially concentrated urine. The fluid is injected into the exhaust as it leaves the engine, reducing the amount of NOx released. VW could have used the same urea system that it uses on its larger cars and that its competitors use. According to the latest news, however, it appears that the company didn’t want to make the investment of about $400 per car.

It may surprise American Europhiles to learn that our emission standards for NOx and other smog agents are actually more stringent than those in Europe. Only in the last year have the Europeans even approached American standards, and enforcement continues to lag. There’s a lot of complexity here, cultural, environmental, geographical, historical, and economic. It’s fair to say, however, that European governments have traded their breathable air for lower greenhouse gas emissions. The British Islanders, especially anxious about rising sea levels, have gone the furthest. (They have also built a retro-futuristic dam at the mouth of the Thames just in case.) As much as they fear CO2, the British have a tradition of cheering their smog, which once inspired pride as a symbol of industrial leadership powered by British coal. They even got a clothing line named after it, after romantically restyling it “London fog.”

Unencumbered by a belief in global warming, American legislators focus on clean air. We only use diesels for our giant trucks and meager fleet of buses, which need diesel’s reliability and low-end torque. Americans prefer to avoid diesel cars. There were a few converts to the old Mercedes diesels when gas prices spiked in the 1970s, but the fact that they accelerated, smelled, and spewed like a city bus with seating for only four non-paying passengers made them hard to love. Conspiracy theorists blame General Motors.

For all of these reasons, half the cars sold in Europe are diesels, while VW has had to shovel money into Superbowl ads just to get Americans to consider them. Of the 11 million Volkswagens that may be caught up in this scandal, fewer than half a million are polluting America. Almost all of the rest are in Europe.

The underlying issue here is not diesels but that VW cheated. Cheating has a long and noble history among car companies, but a few things make the VW case unique.

Usually car companies cheat on safety, and traditionally the cheaters have been Americans. Carmakers have known full well from the earliest days of the automobile that their products were deadly, but they’ve tried to shift the blame to the driver. GM responded to Ralph Nader’s book on the “designed-in dangers” of the American automobile by investigating his sex life and sending “honeypots” to entrap him. Proving unteachable, the company hid its ignition problems until a lawyer filed suit on behalf of the families of the dead. Ford built exploding Pintos in the 1970s but figured it was cheaper to pay off the families of the dead than to fix them. In the 1990s, Ford, along with its tire supplier, Firestone, hid evidence that tire failures were causing crashes and deaths. Forgive them their sins of omission.

The Europeans, and especially the Germanic countries, have long enjoyed a better reputation. Germans are famed for their work ethic and engineering prowess. The original Beetle and the Volkswagen Golf (called the Rabbit in the US) were both innovative and influential cars in their day (the Golf popularized the transverse-engine, front-wheel drive architecture that is now a standard). And VW enjoys certain residual good vibrations from the days of the original Beetle. The Bug was sold as the “un-car,” the very thing for people who didn’t trust Detroit. Only a deadly Volvo would break more hearts.

Renewed faith in German rectitude may be warranted, however, by the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn. Lee Iococca didn’t quit Chrysler when he found out the company was, in the tradition of car salesmen everywhere, fiddling with odometers to sell used cars as new. No one lost their job at GM over the ignition scandal.

In contrast to the Chrysler and GM cases, though, in VW’s case we have a sin of commission: a direct effort at the highest levels to circumvent environmental regulations. Normally, automakers learn of a defect—faulty designs, faulty tires, faulty ignition systems—but keep quiet about it. Intentionally cheating on the EPA’s mileage tests—the ones that feature on window stickers and car ads: “A class-leading 12 MPGs”—is akin to steroid use at the Olympics. Routine and acceptable as long as you’re not caught. Even exhaust tests have been gamed before. Ford did it, GM did it, Honda America did it. All got caught and all paid fines. Even VW has done it before: the company installed devices that would disable newly mandated emissions controls back in 1973. At the time, emissions controls were sucking the life out of the VW Beetle, which suddenly could not keep up with traffic. The company paid a $120,000 fine.

It’s the scale and ingenuity of this latest fake that seems to be a first. Indeed the sophistication of VW’s exhaustive legerdemain deserves admiration. Like Chinese hackers, they did it all with sneaky software. In the EPA’s open letter to VW, it explains that “the ‘switch,’” a piece of software secretly installed in the cars’ electronic control modules, “senses whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation, and barometric pressure.” I can only imagine how many undercover German agents lost their lives attempting to learn the exact barometric pressure inside EPA testing facilities.

As detrimental and uncomfortable as these periodic car scandals are for manufacturers, they are catnip for politicians and the media. As I’ve written about before, politicians who grandstand about auto safety while bankrupting the regulators who are supposed to be actually doing something about auto safety are disgusting. “‘Hold on . . . hold on and pray . . . pray!’ And those were his last words,” intoned Congressman Edolphus Towns at a hearing entitled, “Toyota gas pedals: is the public at risk?” No, the public is not. In 1986, muckrakers at 60 Minutes cooked up a mythical unintended acceleration problem for Audi (now part of VW), killing the import’s sales for a decade. Not to be outdone, in 1992, NBC Dateline‘s producers rigged a pickup truck so that its gas tanks would explode, in order to warn viewers that pickup truck gas tanks might explode. (My mother was fooled by that one and called to make sure my pickup was safe.)

While a car crash death makes for a good TV news lead, “premature deaths” from air pollution have no obvious or photogenic culprit. But now that the media and the politicians have the scent of scandal, we’re in for a load of ignorant, self-interested, and mostly fake outrage. Thoughtful news reporters could have picked up the story over a year ago, when regulators began asking questions, or months ago, when the EPA began to work with VW to correct the problem. Instead, we are treated to explosive news and rampant alarmism about the number of cars involved, the ramifications for the company, and the environmental harm.

The difficult reality is that emissions standards themselves are as fungible as the term “clean diesel.” There’s nothing magical about a particular parts-per-billion or micrograms-per-cubic-meter air pollution standard. Mixing chemistry, epidemiology, and geography creates an odd stew. Even with a fixed standard, cities, regions, and entire countries will violate that standard over the course of a particular day, week, or month. What should the penalties for violations be? The vagaries of wind and weather may matter as much as the mendacity of auto companies and power producers. California gets to set its own emissions standards, but most states need to meet federal regulations, regulations that try to cover South Dakota the same way they do the South Bronx.

Regulators also focus on refining to control tailpipe emissions. For example, much of the sulfur has been refined out of modern diesel, reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide (SOx) pollution. To reduce carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, legislation requires oxygen to be added to gasoline in certain regions at certain times of year. Such environmental regulations can work at cross purposes. Tax breaks and other incentives for high-mileage cars that reduce CO2 emissions encourage buyers to choose diesels. But diesels produce more NOx. Corn-based ethanol adds oxygen to gasoline, which reduces carbon monoxide but also boosts CO2 emissions, because it lowers fuel economy. The EPA promises that the next round of vehicle emissions standards due for 2017 will consider fuel and vehicles holistically.

One of the most fascinating questions regarding the current brouhaha is how it will be fixed. The EPA and the California Air Resources Board have ordered a recall, but VW won’t recall the cars until it has a fix. The news is rife with speculation about what a software fix would do to mileage figures or performance, but it’s just speculation. The company may need to add the same urea tank used on larger VWs and most competitors’ diesels (right now, this solution is emerging as the most likely, but I would never speculate, of course). To compensate owners, the company could pay the difference between what the cars were worth the day before the news broke and the day after. Owners may be tempted to ignore a recall; would you bring your Golf to the dealer so they can lower your MPGs and attenuate your Fahrvergnügen? But eventually it may be impossible to sell or register an unreconstructed TDI. The value of the car will have fallen to near zero. Class action suits generally favor the lawyers over the plaintiffs, so anyone expecting to cash in may be disappointed. In any case, until it is clear what fix might be offered and how it will impact performance, the speculators will continue to speculate.

I should come clean here and admit that I was involved in the sale of a VW TDI myself. In 2010 I received the following email:

Dear n+1 car guru,
I need to buy a car! What’s your assessment of the Prius vs. the new clean-diesel VWs? I look to you…

And the guru’s reply:

I think they’re really two different animals. The VWs going to be more fun to drive and it will get decent mileage, the Prius will be more like a transportation appliance. The mileage numbers on the new TDIs are surprisingly low. Keep in mind too that you’ll have to find diesel and likely pay a higher price for it, so there is not much net savings in buying one. On the other hand, if Armageddon comes you are best off in a diesel.

The request came from none other than n+1’s own Chad Harbach. When he explained that he intended the car mostly for long highway trips, I agreed that it was an even choice with the Prius. In the end, his reasons for choosing the VW Golf over the Prius came down to fun. “That car really moves. The Prius, obviously, don’t move so good.”

The real scandal may be the fact that the regulators trying to impose rules are overmatched by global corporations. It’s a game of cat and mouse in which the mouse chases the cat. The EPA didn’t discover this problem on their own, and European regulators were quiescent until the EPA moved.

In the short term, only bad things will come out of Dieselgate. For one thing, we won’t see any more of those great VW commercials advertising the eight-hundred-mile range of some models. My favorite remains the one with the Passat road trippers who start out speaking English but have learned how to bicker in Spanish before they stop for a fill up. Then there’s the one featuring porcine brothers slinging food around a gas station convenience store because, you see, mom had to stop her Chrysler for gas. Meanwhile, a Passat-driving mom eases by with her sons safely strapped inside. And we’ll likely have to suffer congressional hearings—“German Diesel Invasion: Is America at Risk?”—and media blather on the subject for some time to come.

My inner Pollyanna expects this latest automotive scandal to elevate the conversation about tailpipe emissions and climate change. She also hopes that the VW revelations, along with the spate of recent global safety recalls, will get American politicians to reverse a decades-long trend and provide more support for automobile regulation of all kinds. That’s really the best Polly and I can do.

Of course the best solution all around is to just get back on the bicycle. It gets more miles per pint than any diesel, and you won’t get arrested on the way home from the pub. Besides, VW owners may soon need the extra urea for their tanks.

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