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VW Dieselgate emissions scandal screams a question – Who Watches the Watchman?

On Sept 18, 2015, the EPA and CARB jointly announced the Volkswagen Group had been caught cheating on emissions tests with its 2.0 liter TDI Diesel cars.  The fraud had been perpetrated over a 6 year period during which the cars in question had been lauded as ultra-clean wonder cars.  They were extremely peppy, and by all reports fun to drive, offered extremely high fuel efficiency, while having an extremely tiny air pollution footprint.  Unfortunately for Volkswagen, the last claim was wildly incorrect because the NOx emissions from these cars was 10-40x the allowable limit.

This level of NOx emissions is so bad the cars should never have been allowed on the road.  Further, the cheating on emissions tests was a flagrant violation of the Clean Air Act which puts Volkswagen at risk of huge fines.  Since this scandal broke the potential cost to Volkswagen has been piling up with some estimates putting the total at over $60 billion.  It’s possible that Volkswagen won’t survive this scandal.

While tugging on these strings, looking at what’s being reported, a nagging thought is in my mind.

Who watches the watchman?

How do we know that environmental protection laws are actually benefiting us if the regulators fail to enforce those laws?  The regulators duty is to ensure the desired result occurs, by enforcing the law.  It is supremely important that real action is taken to address the causes of climate change.   Cleaner cars and other technology is expected to fix the climate, but that’s only true if these products are as clean as the manufacturers claim.

Beginning in 2009, Volkswagen told us their TDI Diesel cars gave us the magical combination of great performance, supremely good fuel economy, and extremely low air pollution emissions.  But, Volkswagen lied.  Yes the cars delivered on the first two promises, but these cars delivered low emissions only in the laboratory and not on the road where it really counts.  We don’t go to the grocery store with the car strapped to a dynamometer in a lab.  We drive on the road, and that’s where we need our cars to have ultra clean emissions.

The EPA, and other government regulators, should have caught Volkswagen’s fraud.   They had six years (or more) to do so, and they failed to do so.

That the EPA, like many government agencies today, is suffering from a severe budget shortfall is a big problem.  It’s possible budget cuts meant the EPA failed to catch Volkswagen’s fraud — not enough staff to do enough enforcement.  It’s known the EPA had the necessary technology, but focused on testing diesel powered heavy equipment as a higher priority.  Whatever the reason, at the end of the day the EPA and other government regulatory agencies failed us.

We need the environmental and climate benefits promised by cleaner technologies.  We absolutely need to clean up the environmental and climate problems around us.  The risks posed by climate change and other environmental issues are what makes this so urgent.  We have to get it right, and we don’t have many more chances to dilly-dally around.

All environmental protection agencies around the world must have the resources to enforce the environmental laws they’re charged to keep.  The manufacturers must be held accountable for the claimed environmental benefits of their products.

In some cases products are given government subsidies, or are listed in government publications showcasing green technology.  Volkswagen’s cars, for example, received multiple green car awards and were showcased by the EPA in publications about green cars.  The same occurred in other countries, and some of those countries are now demanding that Volkswagen pay back the subsidies paid out to car buyers.

The Dieselgate story does not offer a ray of sunshine beckoning with solutions to climate and environmental problems.  Instead, it raises a big cloud of doubt and uncertainty.  If Volkswagen was free to commit climate fraud for six years, how many more stories of this sort are lurking?  Is the whole green technology story a sham?

For example, some research suggests that it’s not just Volkswagen’s cars whose emissions control seems to only work in the laboratory.  Transport and Environment, a European group focusing on sustainable transportation, tested a bunch of cars in Europe.  They found the vast majority, from all manufacturers, and including both Diesel and Gasoline vehicles, gave great emissions results in the lab but not on the road.  And, currently, there’s a story in the press about some of Samsung’s televisions who obey within energy consumption standards in a laboratory but not in peoples’ living rooms.

In other words, the problem is not limited to Volkswagen’s TDI Diesel engines.

The generalized problem applies to all products touted to have green benefits.  We need those products to deliver the promised benefits.  The regulatory agencies are tasked with evaluating and verifying the products do as they’re claimed.  But, who watches the watchman?  Who verifies the regulatory agencies are doing their job?



About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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  1. Pingback: Volkswagen announces five priorities to fix Dieselgate problem – will this help? | The Long Tail Pipe

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