VW Dieselgate: a serious matter that needs a reality check

The facts:

Volkswagen programmed the computers regulating the pollution control systems on certain 2008-2015 Audi and Volkswagen diesel vehicles to activate them fully ONLY during official emissions testing. At all other times, the systems limiting NOx emissions were inactive and the vehicles were emitting much more than the legal limit.

The consequences of this manipulation will be enormous: unbelievably high fines are predicted; shares have fallen by as much as 50%; it could cost VW €100bn, putting the entire auto group at risk, it is said. But let’s look coolly at the affair and its ramifications.

NOx is an emission in transport mainly caused by diesel engines. It has been impressively reduced in the last two decades. Before the 1990s there were hardly any limits on this pollutant: and in the mid-90s, when the EU was negotiating with Austria over transit traffic, the average NOx emission for trucks passing the Brenner was defined at 16g/km. Many of these trucks still drive on our roads!

Now the EU limits for new cars are: EURO V (2009 until 2014) 0.18g/km. and EURO VI (2015-) 0.08g/km. In the US this limit is lower at 0.043g/km – feasible because cars there are allowed to have a much higher fuel consumption and associated CO2 output than in the EU.

In the real driving tests that were carried out in the US the values found were: for theVW Jetta between 1.5g/km in uphill driving and 0.6g/km on the highway; for the VW Passat between 0.8g/km in urban traffic and 0.30g/km on the highway. Assuming half of normal driving is on the highway would result in an average of 1g/km for the Jetta and 0.6 g/km for the Passat.

That means 20 times more NOx than the American limit and around 5 times more than the limit under EURO V – certainly not 40 times as reported in some parts of the media.

What are the legal and environmental aspects of this affair?

In order to pass EU type approval tests manufacturers prepare their prototypes finely: everything is done to reduce weight and driving resistance: aircos are deactivated, tyres are pumped up to the limits, side-mirrors are folded etc. Obviously, these measured test values can never be attained in normal usage.

The software manipulation of VW goes far beyond this and is ethically very wrong. But the question of its illegality as alleged in the media is for me still not so clear. The type approval test was clearly not written with this possibility in mind; the cars have passed these tests and would pass the test limit again when they were called back. The fact that they in reality perform differently with software that adapts to normal driving circumstances does not seem very different from enabling the airco or putting the mirrors in the right position. Either way, the type approval tests that enabled these manipulations have to be amended as soon as possible.

The legal situation in the US is more difficult to oversee. Apparently, a fine can be imposed for every individual car that does not meet the test. However, many other car-makers most likely do not meet the lab tests in real time. Will all these other car producers be fined too? Do these fines depend on why the lab values are not met or simply on the proportion not met? Lawyers in the US will be having a field day!

The environmental damage is easier to estimate. It concerns the extra amount of NOx emissions released. Assuming an average emission of 0.8 g/km as calculated above then we should compare this with an emission level of 0.18 g/km that we demand from these vehicles under EURO V. If we take the example of the UK, 600,000 vehicles are affected. If these vehicles drive on average 15,000km per year then the extra emission in the UK is 600.000x15000x0.62= 5580000000 g or 5580 tonnes of NOx. According to DEFRA (environment ministry), total UK emissions are around 1m tonnes per year. That means an increase of about 0.5%.

It remains to be seen how the UK government estimates the costs of these extra emissions and claims it back from VAG. The impact is in any case much lower then the “on the back of an envelope” calculations in the media. If the UK imposed a decent MOT test of emissions then the positive effect would be of an order of magnitude higher then 5580 tonnes of NOx.

In the US only about 500,000 vehicles are involved but the total NOx emission is more than ten times higher than in the UK. So we have here an increase of less than 0.5 promille (parts per thousand).

Nevertheless, the first estimates of claims and penalties taken together in the US range between $27 and $76bn. Interestingly, BP recently settled claims for its disastrous pollution of the Gulf of Mexico by paying out “just” $20bn. It seems to me that a 0.5 promille increase in NOx emissions is of another order of magnitude.

NOx is bad for our health and environment but the extra emissions caused by this affair should be seen in their real proportion.

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