In the post-diesel scandal world, what have we learned from the experience? One of my big takeaways is one of variance. The idea that industry must engineer, and regulators must now stipulate a far more uniform code of emissions standards to take away variance by region. To borrow from the computer tech world, there’s just one Internet and everyone who designs stuff for it understands this simple factor well. More uniform emissions limits will foster greater innovation, more competitiveness in the aim of cleaner engines and simplifying the equation toward the overall goal of improving air quality.
One driving subtext behind Volkswagen’s Tocatta and Fugue in Fumes is this variance. Airborne pollution is as free as a bird to fly from state to state, from county to county and across international borders. Despite this fact, we still have not brought these regulations—chiefly in the form of CO2, HC and most notably and newsworthy, NOx and particulates—in harmony among the major auto markets and developed economies across the globe. If the California emissions regulations and the EU’s regs were identical, VW might not have had any kind of window for nefarious software that fudged test results in the more stringent, and lower-volume market. Put another way, a more level playing field would remove any possible incentive to fix cars for problem market specs. Of course, this software was used globally in 11 million cars. But it was only used as VW re-entered the U.S. market including California, where NOx limits are the most restrictive in the world.
Even this year, Europe’s allowable levels of NOx for light-duty passenger cars—0.05 g/mi (converted from km) versus 0.007 g/mi—is still over seven times greater than US federal limits.
Of course, the bigger goal is clean air and we can clearly still do better. For sure, stationary emitters must do a better job, as must the shipping industry, perhaps the most flagrant current fouler or air quality. But experiments like the recent Parisian day of car-lessness in the city’s center visibly cleared up the air on one beautiful Sunday, proving that cars still have far to go on air quality.
Make no mistake, the VW scandal is bigger than even the bailout of GM and Chrysler, bigger than the recent Takata airbag recall fiasco, and bigger than the Audi sudden acceleration kerfuffle in the 1980s. Why? Because it involves intentional outright engineering deception. Deception by top management and by engineers, aimed at its own customers, its own dealers, governments and at its own partner business units around the world. And this is nowhere near over.
In addition, European manufacturers have stated in the wake of the VW scandal that if governments within the EU begin spot-checking or periodic real-world testing of auto emissions, they will ask for leniency on the results. This only erodes the faith and trust in those manufacturers by the buying public.
If we had greater harmony across auto emissions standards globally, this VW scandal might not have happened. For sure, VW still chose to do it, and they will face full culpability for the deception. But if there were one rigorous spec for light-duty passenger car NOx in the developed countries of Europe, North America and Asia, you might not be reading this column right now and you’d also likely be breathing mildly cleaner air.
Many economists and marketers believe there’s no force like customer demand. As customers seek cleaner-running and more fuel efficient automobiles—especially at the affordable, and therefore high-volume end of the market—manufacturers will begin to cater to those desires in a far more rapid and holistic way. We saw this with VW and Audi as they launched their “Clean Diesel” marketing effort across brands, while Toyota and others in the U.S. market hitched their wagons to hybrid and electric drive.
Audi R10 TDI
Audi has even won eight 24 hours of Le Mans endurance races using brilliantly engineered prototype racing cars powered by diesel engines. Indeed, the whole effort behind switching to diesels for their Le Mans prototype racing program is a familiar one to the general auto industry. Fuel economy. Better economy means fewer pit stops, more time at speed on track, more distance covered, greater average speed, a better chance to win, and proof of concept. Only now, they’ve sullied that track record of “Truth in Engineering” and “Clean Diesel” 11 million times over.
Bringing emissions specifications more in line globally will benefit all of us as consumers and enthusiasts and will also go a long way to eroding the possibility of disasters like VW’s recent scandal. @JimResnick1