Saturday, October 03, 2015

222.5 - Volkswagen caught cheating

Volkswagen caught cheating

As I expect you know, the EPA has discovered that Volkswagen deliberately cheated on air pollution tests on seven of its diesel-fueled models, including various Jettas, Beetles, Audis, Golfs, and Passats. Nearly 500,000 US-sold cars are to be recalled.

The company did this by installing software that detected when the vehicle was being tested and changed the engine's function to make it look like it was emitting less pollution than it really was. The system involved traps nitrogen oxide, a pollutant that can cause emphysema, bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases. It's supposed to be on all the time. What was happening here is that when the car was being tested, the software turned the system on, but then turned it off during regular driving - which saves some fuel (so the company can claim better gas mileage) and can improve acceleration (so the company can claim better performance), but also allows the engine to emit up to 40 times the legal limit of pollutants.

The scandal multiplied when a few days later the company admitted that 11 million of its diesel cars, mostly sold in Europe, were equipped with that software.

In a quick sidebar addressed to fans of industry "self-regulation," always offered as an alternative to "big government intrusion," in the US, automakers do their own pollution tests and report the results to the government. But the EPA does its own spot-checks, and that is how this deliberate cheating was uncovered. "Self-regulation" is precisely how this happened.

Attorneys general for several states have said that they were forming a group to investigate the deceit. Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and other the countries are also looking into it.

Volkswagen will likely wind up paying fines of hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars, plus spending billions more to repair the cars involved.

But remember: Company executives did this consciously and deliberately. They consciously lied and cheated to sell more cars by making them look "green" while actually spewing out large amounts of pollutants damaging to the public health. If one of us did that to our own car and got caught, we could be facing bankrupting fines - federal fines run up to $295,000 - and a jail term.

VW, of course, will not be bankrupted. And no one will go to jail. CEO Martin Winterkorn had to resign, some lower-level managers will be the sacrificial lambs, but that and some fines will very likely be the limit of personal and corporate impacts.

But - and this is what I wanted to get to - for some people, even that is too much.

The right wing wants to blame the whole thing not on VW but on - get this - the existence of air pollution controls. Because, apparently, if we didn't have air pollution regulations, well, there wouldn't be air pollution. Or something.

For example, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that devices installed in cars to defeat pollution controls "serve a functional purpose" of increasing mileage and performance - rather than, apparently, of illegally defeating pollution controls. The editorial also suggests that this is just a case of a "well-known regulatory trade-off" - meaning, more exactly, that VW's type of massive cheating is just the way it's always been so why make a big deal out of it now?

The National Review blamed "phony moral imperatives" such as "automotive emissions standards" and "the worldwide global-warming crusade" for creating "temptation to cheat," a temptation, we are supposed to accept, that no corporate board could - or perhaps even should - resist if increased profit beckons from the other side.

A senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, said "aggressive regulations ... are to blame." The answer is not to punish VW but to "curb" the EPA.

Stephen Glover, a columnist for UK paper The Daily Mail, actually blamed the whole thing on "the pernicious tyranny of the Green lobby" and "climate-change zealots," based on their arguing for diesel because it emits significantly less carbon dioxide than regular gasoline. Again, in a chorus with the rest, Glover argues that the issue is not that VW deliberately cheated and lied to evade regulations, the issue is that there are regulations for them to evade.

Oh, by the way, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association gave its response to the scandal, which was "There is no evidence that this is an industrywide issue." In other words "Nope, not us. We're innocent." Which I expect is pretty much what VW was saying right up to the moment it got caught.

Sources cited in links:!OpenDocument

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