PRICE ON The Volk­swa­gen con­tro­versy

You just can’t trust com­put­ers, es­pe­cially when they are fit­ted to cars!

New Zealand Classic Car - - Price On - By Greg Price

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.

So what?

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!

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