Volkswagen, the German automobile manufacturer and largest producer of cars in the world, has been found guilty of fitting more than 11 million cars with devices designed to outsmart environmental regulations on diesel emissions standards.
The company denied any involvement in the development or implementation of so called “defeat devices” for more than a year, until last week, when the CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned. Approximately one third of Volskwagen’s market value has been wiped out since the news broke, and stock prices have steadily declined.
For a company that marketed itself in the United States as “clean diesel” with a low environmental impact, the scandal was a significant blow to Volkswagen’s public image. Since 2009, diesel vehicles have made up approximately 15 percent of VW and Audi U.S. sales, although they represent less than 1 percent of cars on the road in the United States.
Volkswagen is facing heavy fines as a result of the deception, from both United States and international institutions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could, in theory, charge Volkswagen $37,500 for each vehicle sold not in compliance with U.S. emissions standards. With at least 482,000 VW and Audi cars sold in the United States involved in the allegations, Volkswagen could be looking at more than $18 billion in fines. The number does not include the cost of fixing the engines in order to make them comply with emissions standards, a cost which Volkswagen has agreed to cover.
“I think regulators everywhere will learn some lessons from this, in terms of how they monitor and how they do testing on vehicles,” said Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies Frank Alcock. “I think the industry will watch what happens to Volkswagen and not want that to happen to them. However, people and firms, especially, when money is to be made, will find ways to cheat.”
A West Virginia company first uncovered the issue when it was commissioned by a clean air advocacy group to look into diesel vehicle emissions levels. When tested to meet U.S. pollution standards, the defeat devices allowed the Volkswagen diesel cars to reduce the level of emissions produced in order to meet environmental standards. However, when out on the road, the vehicles emitted up to 40 times the allowed level of nitrogen oxide.
“Diesel fuel holds a lot more energy than standard fuel,” Alcock said. “It is much more energy efficient and it also releases less in terms of greenhouse gases. It’s a potentially attractive option. Diesel engines, however, cost a little more up front. Maintenance is a little trickier, because it’s a heavier fuel. Normally, the combustion of diesel fuel produces a lot of NOx.”
Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, have been linked to various respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. A byproduct of burning fossil fuels at high temperatures, the chemicals are harmful to human and animal health and can turn into smog in warm, sunny conditions (such as Florida). NOx can irritate the lungs, increasing airway inflammation, wheezing, and coughing, and can also cause lowered resistance to respiratory illnesses, especially among those with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma. The elderly and children are particularly susceptible to the effects of NOx.
“I don’t think that you will see a point where [Volkswagen] will be legally accountable for specific damages and injuries that people have [as a result of NOx emissions],” Alcock said. “But the federal government and the EPA have left themselves considerable latitude – if you cheat and get caught there will be fines.”
Vehicle emissions contain varying amounts of pollutants. These pollutants contribute to environmental degradation. A number of factors determine the composition of emissions, including the vehicle’s fuel type, the engine’s technology, the vehicle’s exhaust system, and how the vehicle operates. Emissions are also produced by fuel evaporation during fueling or even when vehicles are parked. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global climate change, with transportation contributing about a third of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Significant long-term exposure to the chemicals emitted from vehicle exhaust can even potentially lead to cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The impact of air pollution on global environmental conditions and human health is an indirect result of the emissions scandal, and the ambiguity of such effects makes it extremely difficult to determine how much damage has actually been done. In a recent paper released by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, it was estimated that air pollution caused three million premature deaths per year, and that the number of deaths could more than double by the year 2050.
The American Lung Association estimates that almost 41 percent of Americans are living in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone, and that’s after almost 40 years of attempts to reduce air pollution by the EPA through the Clean Air Act of 1971. Estimates by the EPA put nitrogen levels in 2014 at more than half of what they were in the 1980’s. The Obama administration made a point to increase emissions regulations and emphasized the importance of reduced pollution in all policy areas.
As a result of the Volkswagen scandal the EPA is expected to come out with stricter standards for car companies this month and is making plans to more carefully test all other car companies that sell vehicles in the United States, to ensure no one else is capitalizing off of defeat devices.
In Florida, there have been no emissions tests required for original or renewed registrations since 2000, when Governor Jeb Bush got rid of the program. “The leadership in Florida, right now, the prevailing powers, are pretty recalcitrant when it comes to being progressive when it comes to environmental regulations,” Alcock said. “We’re on the laggard side, and there’s a risk to being too much of a laggard at some point. I would like to see stronger regulations here in the state of Florida.”
Information for this article was taken from reuters.com, nytimes.com, money.cnn.com, usatoday.com, wsj.com and energy.gov.
Cars affected by the Volkswagen scandal:
VW Jetta, Beetle and Golf from years 2009-2015, the Passat from years 2014-2015, and the Audi A3 from years 2009-2015.