Volkswagen, said Wikipedia last time I looked, “is now the second-largest auto maker in the world”. Wikipedia editors, you may need to change the tense in that sentence, because VW is in trouble. We now know that its clever engineers had developed a car so smart, it could identify when its emissions were being tested and temporarily adopt a much less polluting engine management regime. This allowed it to cheat the test.
In an industry which has not been overly concerned with environmental issues, this might have seemed a small issue. But it wasn’t. The shares collapsed, the CEO has gone, governments around the world are demanding further investigation, and VW finds itself facing the threat of multi-billion-dollar fines and litigation.
But isn’t it naïve to be shocked by this news? The motor industry has fought a sophisticated and highly successful campaign over many years to obstruct higher emissions standards, and has then found ways to beat the emission testing system, achieving measurements that cannot be replicated by the driver in real life.
In 2012, consultants working for the European Commission suggested that “utilisation of flexibilities may account for two fifths to one half of the net CO2 emission reduction between 2002 and 2010.”
By ‘utilisation of flexibilities’ they mean fiddling the tests.
If you want to know more, T&E is an excellent source of information on vehicle emissions and the politics and industry strategies around the issue. ‘Six facts about diesel the car industry would rather not tell you’ is a good place to start.
Why don't we buy the cleanest cars?
VW cars with the ‘defeat’ technology were also smart enough to know when the emission test process was completed. They would then switch back to the normal engine regime – faster, more powerful, just what the driver desires, and yes, much more polluting.
The industry has a similar default and will no doubt also soon revert to its previous mode. Why wouldn’t it? We, the purchasers and drivers, care more about power and style than clean air. Were this not so, all cars sold would be tiny, frugal, low-emission hybrids: but they aren’t.
An industry analyst, speaking right after the initial news, said “regulators will now be much more conservative about what they permit”. Does he really think that? My guess is that regulators will regulate as far as this hugely powerful global industry lets them. Take a deep breath by all means, but don’t expect motor vehicle emissions to be cleaned up any time soon.