Thank you for cheating, Volkswagen

The automaker’s emissions scandal could end up being a boon if it pushes governments and the industry to reassess diesel’s impact more honestly and move away from it altogether.

Before you start howling at me, I’d like to say that I do feel for all the people working for VW and its subsidiaries, suppliers, and dealerships. They must be going through a difficult time not knowing the full fallout of the emissions scandal.

When I first read about the way Volkswagen engineers had developed a cheating device to disguise the real emissions of some of the most popular diesel engines used in the VW group, I was appalled. Having read extensively about Volkswagen and its history and as a former owner of a VW car, I couldn’t believe what they did. But the facts are out there for everyone to see.

Now, however, I am convinced the whole episode was a good thing. Europe needs to reevaluate its dependence on diesel, not only for passenger cars and buses, but also for freight transportation.

People living in London, Paris and Barcelona know firsthand how smelly and polluted their cities have become because of the number of diesel vehicles driving around.

Volkswagen is not the only culprit here. Most diesel cars from other manufacturers, such as Ford, Renault, Nissan, Citroën, Mercedes Benz, and Fiat also fail thorough emission tests.

What we Europeans need to do is re-evaluate our entire relationship with diesel. Today, more than 55 percent of all passenger cars sold on the continent have diesel engines, on top of the 99 percent of other transportation vehicles that are diesel. That needs to change. This doesn’t mean dropping diesel in favour of gasoline, which is only slightly less polluting, but moving to low or zero emission vehicles altogether.

It is also an opportunity for VW and other car manufacturers to refocus their R&D resources and production on new technologies, such as electric and hybrid engines.

Take transported goods, for example. The percentage of freight traveling by road in Europe is substantially higher than in the United States. While the US doesn’t have the same high-speed rail infrastructure for passenger trains, 47 percent of transported goods travel by train, compared with only 7 percent in Europe. At the same time, the US is still using diesel engines in most of its rail infrastructure, while all European rail networks are electric.

Europe needs to get more of its freight delivered by rail while the US needs to upgrade its rail network to something less polluting.

On the passenger car front, Audi, the premium brand in the Volkswagen group, has already announced it is shifting production of some of its diesel models to electric, and will increase R&D funding in that direction. Audi’s CEO Rupert Stadler will be talking about the company’s new direction to representatives of hundreds of cities worldwide next month when he participates in the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona.

What Europe needs to do now

First, we need effective public policies to make the shift away from diesel possible. The EU needs to accelerate the introduction of new emissions standards, currently slated to take effect in September 2018. Some governments and the automotive industry are fiercely lobbying behind the scenes in Brussels for a one-year delay, calling the timetable unrealistic. Spain is holding out for a start date three years later than that, according to The Guardian.

Euro 6 regulations, approved in 2007, limit nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions to 80 mg per Km, a significant reduction from the 180 mg currently in effect. Current rules also require cars to be tested under “normal driving conditions”, using portable emissions monitoring systems (PEMS) on the road, and when the engine is cold.

Second, cities need to upgrade their inspection equipment to detect cars that are still cheating and force them to re-program their engines to meet current standards. New testing equipment should also be more efficient testing cars from all manufacturers.

Last December the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said her goal was to make the city diesel free by 2020, a move that most of the city residents approve. This is achievable and other cities should follow suit.

Mandatory recalls

Third, and going back to the Volkswagen debacle, governments need to demand a recall. In Germany, the government has done just that, recently ordering a mandatory recall of all cars equipped with the Volkswagen cheat device, contrary to the company’s original idea of making it voluntary. This will affect 2.8 million vehicles.

But other countries have not acted yet. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are 1.2 million cars affected in the UK, another 900,000 in France, and 684,000 cars in Spain.

What may complicate matters is that some drivers could refuse to have their cars “fixed.” They fear that the diesel engine will lose gas efficiency and power output, and they are right. “I wouldn’t want my car recalled or reprogrammed or retrofitted in any way if it is going to hurt the performance, because that is not what I paid for,” said Jeff Hinton, the owner of a 2013 Passat diesel to The New York Times.

But while it is not their fault that the manufacturer made false claims, it would be irresponsible to continue to drive around — especially in cities — knowing that the vehicle is pumping out dangerous levels of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Greg Archer of Transport & Environment said: “Carmakers claims [that] new diesel cars are clean are preposterous. Governments must ignore the bleating of carmakers for lenient limits and fix the problem for good.”

Getting rid of diesel will be a bumpy ride. Initially, transportation costs will rise because of gasoline’s lower performance and greater expense. But it will bring us cleaner healthier cities and will save thousands of lives a year in Europe alone.

Originally published on October 28, 2015.






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