PRICE ON The Volkswagen controversy
You just can’t trust computers, especially when they are fitted to cars!
Ihad a wee chuckle to myself in September when the story about the Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal broke in the US. I thought it was humorous, simply because it is not the first time that Americans have been hoodwinked by a vehicle manufacturer.
Nader and the Environmental Protection Agency
Many of you will recall an American activist named Ralph Nader, who, largely as a result of his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, effectively brought about the demise of the Chevrolet Corvair, claiming it was unsafe. Nader’s crusading also nearly brought about the demise of the convertible. The point of mentioning this is that Nader’s crusade for safety was, in part, responsible for the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The EPA is responsible for writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress, and currently employs in excess of 15,000 individuals. The EPA is probably most well known for bringing about the demise of leaded petrol, as we know it, with its stringent emissions prohibitions.
Now, we all know that many vehicles, including motorcycles, were designed and built to be run on leaded fuel — and I don’t need to remind any of you that, even today, most race car engines, pistonengined aeroplanes, and older racing motorcycles must use high-octane petrol, and that high octane can only be attained with the addition of tetraethyl lead.
In 1991, I purchased a Suzuki GN400L, a Japanese motorcycle that would be the company’s first foray into the US market — to that end, the bike had extended forks, ‘ape-hanger’ handlebars, and was rather like a small Harley. Interestingly, the handbook accompanying the bike recommended the use of unleaded petrol — but I quickly discovered that it wouldn’t run properly on that type of fuel. When I approached the local Suzuki retailers, I was told that the only reason the handbook mentioned the use of unleaded was to make the bike more environmentally acceptable in the US, its intended market. I switched to leaded, and it ran sweetly — so, even back then, there was at least one manufacturer that was attempting to outsmart those pesky environmentalists!
Fast forward to 2015
Comprehending the impact that the EPA has on practically everything to do with emissions, it is not hard to understand why some have attempted to outsmart emissions-testing regimes. Regular readers will be aware that I have previously mentioned the fact that digital odometers in cars are easily tampered with using a laptop and a special program available on the internet. About five minutes after the original program to repair digital odometers was developed, someone else came up with a program to circumvent it in such a way as to ‘fool’ the usual prepurchase checks. A ‘certified kilometres’ sticker on a used import means nothing if the check was done after the device had already been tampered with.
So, it was hardly a surprise that a method was devised to fool any emissions-testing regime — a car’s computer program that allows the vehicle to ‘know’ when it is being subjected to a testing process of some kind.
I’m not exactly sure of the monetary cost to VW of meeting the EPA’S emissions standards, but it must be significant; otherwise, the company wouldn’t have done what it did.
At the time of writing, it would seem that two top engineers are being investigated. Apparently, they decided that they couldn’t provide a clean enough diesel engine for the US market, so opted instead to deceive the testing equipment. Now, from where I sit, I have yet to read anything that would indicate that the US emissions standard is anything other than an ideal. The EPA has classified that the computer program fitted to VW’S 2009–2015 turbocharged, direct-injection, diesel-engine models — so that the standards were only met during laboratory testing — a defeat device under the Clean Air Act. Apparently, some 11 million vehicles are affected worldwide.
Surely, the world is not going to end if VW and other manufacturers cannot meet such stringent standards?
I have a big issue when someone claims that X number of deaths can be attributed to vehicle emissions. Really? Can we see the individual death certificates citing inhaling diesel fumes from VWS as being the principal cause of death? In addition, what part does the quality of the diesel play in all this?
We well remember the first batches of crappy unleaded petrol (over 50 per cent toluene) that were foisted on us back in the 1990s and the mechanical damage to our classic cars that resulted. I also recall that some ‘top of the range’ diesel-fuelled vehicles would not be made available in New Zealand because the quality of our diesel at the time was considered less than optimum. Interestingly, at the time, there were no deaths attributed to lead in petrol (and never had been, according to my research at the time); rather, they were attributed to leaded paint fumes! Whether New Zealand now gets ‘quality’ diesel, I’ve no idea, as I have no diesel-powered vehicles and have no desire to ever own one.
Walking the plank
It will be interesting to watch the VW situation unravel and see just how far up the food chain the blame is apportioned, but, at the end of the day, VW is one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, and it is not going to be put out of business because of this.
As we have often seen before, if a particular standard cannot be met (for example, as with many of the Christchurch-earthquake building repairs), then simply lower the standards! There is far too much money being made in the motor-vehicle manufacturing industry worldwide for this emissions scandal to be anything more than a large boil on the backside of VW — and a public lancing of the same will see the whole thing go away over time. In my opinion, that will probably involve the public taking of a few scalps, and some voluntary walkings of the plank, after which the whole debacle will simply be tomorrow’s fish and chips wrappings!