Rolling Coal and the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal

A Duramax 2500 HD is cruising down the highway at 83 miles and hour in the left lane. As the truck driver passes a Prius in the lane to his right, he hits a switch that momentarily reprograms the engine management of his 6.6 liter diesel V8 to inject far too much fuel into its cylinders. Rolling clouds of black smoke billow from vertically mounted smoke stacks behind the cab. Pleased that he effectively offended the Prius driver, the truck driver accelerates more rolling a cloud of coal behind him on the highway.

As we’ve all learned this fall, thanks to Volkswagen’s cheating on their diesel emissions tests, the company faces fines of up to $22,775 per car in violation. VW has been rolling coal on all of us for a while now. A full check of the EPA guidelines (thanks to The Truth About Cars) ends up with a total fine of $3,262,518,776. While it’s perhaps easy to villainize VW and feel content about every penny they end up getting fined, I think the entire situation bears considering.


First, we need to look at why this happened in the first place. Yes, Volkswagen was faced with a daunting engineering challenge in trying to get its diesel cars to pass revised emissions regulations and decided, instead of facing that challenge, to simply circumvent the emissions laws. The engineering staff as well as numerous executives have already either been fired or are on indefinite leave. There obviously need to be financial consequences though the potential settlement in VW’s case could dwarf what other car companies paid for arguably worse infractions and oversights. We can look at other recent recalls for example. GM was only fined $35 million for willfully manufacturing a part that lead to at least 124 deaths and over 400 injuries. Honda was only fined $70 million for failing to report over 1,700 deaths to the NHTSA’s early warning program. VW didn’t kill anybody.

Some people, including Elon Musk, are using this as an opportunity to show the world how we need to transition to electric vehicles and how electric vehicles will lead us to a better future. Right now, all Elon is hoping is that we will lead Tesla to a better future by embracing electric cars en masse. Because I wouldn’t bet on electrics as our savior. As Sergio Marchionne memorably pointed out, creating the high-density lithium ion batteries required for an electric car with an acceptable range is extremely energy intensive. This makes it a hard argument that electrics are even that environmentally friendly as most of the energy used to both make the batteries and power the vehicles come from environmentally unfriendly energy sources that supply the majority of the energy to the power grid. Not only that, but the rare earth elements required to make the power dense lithium ion batteries are difficult and very damaging to extract from the earth and to manufacture into batteries. There is a lot of promise in this technology, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t mature enough yet to be the only solution.

That still leaves us with Volkswagen’s initial problem that lead to the whole issue: heightened emissions standards for diesel cars. Current emissions targets are unreasonable. Let me explain for a minute. The current test cycle, FTP-75 horridly reflects real world driving. Emissions and fuel economy under this test cycle are vastly improved from what they are in the real world. The only people who benefit from this are Washington lawmakers. Congressmen sitting on committees get to show-off their aggressive new targets for automakers. But no one else wins. Well, perhaps also people more concerned with feeling like they are saving the environment than with the realities of the problems the planet is facing. Automakers are saddled with more and more unrealistic targets and customers are given cars with mileage ratings that mean little in the real world. I by no means propose to going back to the 1960s where all cars spewed noxious exhaust gases with abandon but wouldn’t it make sense if the standards our cars were passing accurately reflected how they perform in the real world?

So what would solve the problems? The issues with Volkswagen have already occurred; we can’t reverse those. But if we created sensible real-world emissions testing and regulations, we would be on our way to eliminating a major factor of what caused the problems in the first place. And VW’s emissions conundrum can in fact be solved. By treating diesel exhaust with AdBlue, we can clean up the particulates and other pollutants remarkably well. So why didn’t VW use AdBlue? That’s simple; they decided it was too expensive. So diesels are going to cost $355 dollars more? That’s something will just have to deal with. Diesel and diesel hybrids with the appropriate urea exhaust treatment are the best currently feasible technologies for making environmentally friendly cars now.


Images courtesy of jST, The Climate Group

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