September 19th, 2015

How did VW get impressive performance out of its diesel engines? It cheated.

"“When the pollution controls are functioning on these vehicles, there’s a trade-off between performance and emissions,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research group. [new para] It was Mr. Kodjak’s group, in conducting research on diesel vehicles, that first noticed the discrepancy between Volkswagen’s emissions in testing laboratories and on the road. They brought the issue to the attention of the E.P.A., which conducted further tests on the cars, and ultimately discovered the use of the defeat device software."

The potential difference between measured emissions when the software is active and actual emissions when driving around and enjoying that vaunted German Engineering Performance is at least 40x but probably more because VW probably didn't hit the limit allowed under Clean Air during emissions testing.

"During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. said."

I know that car manufacturers are participating in a commodity industry, and a particularly awful one: high competition, low profit margins, hugely impacted by the down part of the business cycle, governmental participation in an effort to get the jobs (whether state competition for factory location or something more ridiculous at the national level in the way of jockeying for preference in international trade). I also know that cars are increasingly complex machines, and organizations that build complex machines are made up of humans who don't want to get into trouble when they can't meet targets so people lie and cover up the evidence of their personal or group failures making it difficult for higher levels to take appropriate action in a timely fashion. I also know that these are al(most al)l publicly traded companies, punished viciously for incredibly minor differences in obscure metrics, thus tempting the highest levels of management to engage in Shenanigans.

So I shouldn't be surprised by this, and I should be happy it was detected. But mostly, I'm sitting here going, I've been getting increasingly pissed off about the debate between "clean diesel" vs. hybrid or electric or natgas or other vehicles. And "clean diesel", like nuclear energy, has had a lot more supporters and a lot better numbers in some respects than I was happy about, given how hard I come down on the other side (lots of asthma in my family; I don't believe in "clean" diesel). Finding out that those numbers were jiggered makes me incredibly angry, which says bad things about me as a person. I should be more angry about all the people who died in stuff lie the Toyota problem, or the horrific injuries from the Takata airbags used by Honda. And yet, I am enough of a capitalist to find the scale of cheating and fraud involved in this "defeat device" scandal outrages me to my core.

This is right up there with intentionally lying on the books and insider trading. This is a threat to the way our system works. Most of the "rules of the game" in modern capitalism revolve around NOT lying, and most of the enforcement involves making sure whoever does lie on a large and effective scale and benefits from those lies never gets the chance to do it again. Whoever it was at VW that participated in the decisionmaking that led to the installation of this device/software needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

And the next time I hear someone saying how wonderful their VW drives, I'm gonna ask 'em if they've had the recall work done yet or not.