The volkswagen emission scandal

From ToxicLeaks

Once upon a time, there was a car maker that claimed its diesel engine cars were the cleanest the world had ever seen. And many believed that thanks to technological progress, it had become possible to have a diesel engine car that was efficient, safe and mindful of the environment. But eventually, everybody learned the truth : that Volkswagen's cars were actually terrible for the environment and that their toxic emissions were through the roof. Thus was the fairy tale of clean diesel cars exposed. A cautionary tale that we should all remember.

Volkswagen and its wondrous clean diesel engine cars[edit | edit source]

It all started when the norms on diesel engine cars became more stringent. In 2004, the American new Tier 2 rules lowered the amount of NOx that could be released per mile. Whereas the limit used to be set at 1.0 g / mi, it was lowered to 0,07g /mi. This meant that Volkswagen diesel cars could not be sold on the American market anymore because they could no longer pass the emissions test. Now, Volkswagen has a lot a shareholders to take care of and it just couldn't let that juicy American market slip by. Plus, European emission limits had been lowered in 2008 too, even though the limit was not as low as the American one. So that's when Volkswagen announced that it was going to release a new line of state of the art Clean Diesel cars.

This raised a lot of suspicion from all those who know the dangers of diesel engines. Still, Volkswagen claimed that its new line of cars would both have exceptional performance and very low NOx emissions. This would be achieved thanks to a very sophisticated electronically controlled injection system that would be able to optimize the burning of the fuel. However, what Volkswagen didn't advertise is that a “defeat device” was built in the system in order to cheat the tests. This defeat device was designed to sense that the car was being tested and to activate a test mode if that was the case. In this test mode, the engine was induced to emit a very low amount of NOx, but the performance was lowered.

Whereas in real mode, the performance was enhanced, the emissions went through the roof. Now what is insane about this fraud is that Volkswagen didn't just manage to get its dirty cars to be approved both on the European and the American market, it got the cars to be rewarded with numerous “green car” awards as well as receiving subsidies and tax exemptions. So what basically happened is that Volkswagen took the emissions regulators of the world for a bunch of clowns. The guys who thought of and designed that device must have been laughing their heads off when they saw how badly everyone had been fooled by their fraud. That level of dishonesty is just staggering.

Missed opportunity : how lobbies prevented the fraud from being discovered early[edit | edit source]

When you think about it, it's not that surprising that Volkswagen tried to pull this fraud, they knew that regulators would take ages to discover it and to take punitive steps. The 2011 European commission report on several diesel vehicles is case in point. That report discovered that contrary to what had been stated during initial tests, Volkswagen diesel cars exceeded the Euro 5 standard for NOx emissions. The report quite rightly suspected fraud : “Sensors and electronic components in modern light-duty vehicles are capable of 'detecting' the start of an emissions test in the laboratory (e.g., based on acceleration sensors or not-driven/not-rotating wheels). Some vehicle functions may only be operational in the laboratory, if a predefined test mode is activated. Detecting emissions tests is problematic from the perspective of emissions legislation, because it may enable the use of defeat devices that activate, modulate, delay, or deactivate emissions control systems with the purpose of either enhancing the effectiveness of these systems during emissions testing or reducing the effectiveness of these systems under normal vehicle operation and use.”

This discovery should have immediately triggered a full-scale investigation at the European level and in each member-state. Instead, the European commission chose to do nothing. This is directly linked to Volkswagen's influence at the core of the European Union, in Brussels. The German car maker has 43 full-time lobbyists, working to prevent or stall any European measures that could impede Volkswagen's interests. All in all, German car makers spend 10 million euros every year, to lobby the European commission and make sure that it doesn’t decide anything that would be detrimental to Volkswagen business. And if in the process they wreck the environment or people's health so be it !

How a study designed to celebrate Volkswagen's clean technology discovers is a lie[edit | edit source]

In 2014, a research team from West Virginia started conducting a project for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an international nonprofit working to improve the field of transportation and decrease pollution. This organization had seen that diesel cars sold in Europe were not as clean as the ones sold in the United States, where the standards were more stringent. They decided to test cars that had been manufactured from the American market and cars that had been made for the European one in road tests with a portable emission measuring device. So the researchers drove the cars, a Volkswagen Jetta, a Volkswagen Passat and a BMW X5, for thousands of miles, expecting the Volkswagen cars to have excellent results, as the lab tests indicated they would. But that's when the lie burst.

The emissions of the Volkswagen Jetta were 15 to 35 times higher than the American limit and the emissions of the Passat were 5 to 20 times higher than the limit. They were flabbergasted to say the least, because they had stumbled into the opposite of what they had set out to measure. Because the media narrative of how clean the Volkswagen diesels were had been so thickly woven that is seemed impossible to believe it could all be a lie. However, that's exactly what it was.

Volkswagen only comes clean when finally cornered[edit | edit source]

Normal human beings might say that the discovery of the lie by the ICCT study in 2014 was incontrovertible evidence of fraud and that is should have driven Volkswagen to immediately come clean, apologize, and recall the vehicles that were on the roads, releasing health-threatening particles. Well of course, that didn't happen. Volkswagen clung to its lie as long as it could. The American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that Volkswagen tried for a year to claim that the discrepancies between lab testing and ICCT road testing had been due to technical glitches.

Of course Volkswagen wasn't going to accept its fate without trying once again to use its considerable resources to influence government decisions. However the scandal grew to the point the EPA just couldn't give in to Volkswagen pressure the way the European commission had. And on September 18th 2015, the EPA addressed to Volkswagen a Notice of Violation concerning the half million Volkswagen and Audi cars that had been fraudulently sold on the American market between 2009 and 2015. What's more, the EPA threatened to withhold authorisation to sell new lines of Volkswagen cars if the car maker didn't finally start collaborating with the agency in addressing this mishap. And that's when Volkswagen gave in. Not when scientific proof of their lies had been established. Not when the world realized their cars were far from being as clean as they were supposed to be and were actually a danger to the environment and people's health. It's only when its profits were threatened that Volkswagen finally admitted the fraud.

High responsibility in corporate fraud, high reward[edit | edit source]

With that in mind, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn's words of apology sound pretty hollow : “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public”. Martin Winterkorn is not sorry that his company betrayed its customers (and every citizen of the countries where the cars were sold and polluted the air), he's just sorry that his company got caught ! And even though he claims that he wasn't aware of the fraud, his resignation on September 23rd is clear proof that he was. Let us remember that Winterkorn was Germany's second best paid CEO before this scandal erupted and according to experts, he is going to get a juicy 60 million euro ($67 million) severance package. What this means is quite clear.

As CEO, Winterkorn was paid an enormous amount to keep Volkswagen profit up, no matter the cost to the public or the environment, and in this moment of crisis, he is being paid again to step down quietly while protecting the company's name by casting the blame on a handful of people. Indeed, Winterkorn speaks of “the terrible mistakes of a few people”. To say to he wasn't aware of this fraud is utterly dishonest, as the German tabloid Bild pointed out in an article that revealed the top management of Volkswagen knew from the start that the software they were using was illegal because the company Bosch that had designed it had warned them about that. Thus can we see that the car industry protects its own. Instead of sacking the man responsible for this historical scandal, he is being rewarded, and while he had to resign, he is leaving with his pockets full.

Damage control and attacks on freedom of the press[edit | edit source]

Winterkorn's hypocritical apology is all the more despicable than at the same time, Volkswagen was doing everything it could to stifle coverage of the emissions scandals. To achieve this, the car maker didn't hesitate to spit on the freedom of the press. On September 22nd, MediaCom agency, which represents Volkswagen in the French media, threatened to cancel all Volkswagen and Audi advertising campaigns in the media which covered the emissions scandal. Apparently Volkswagen seems to think money can buy everything, even a journalist's soul, but this scandal was to big for the threat to have any influence on the coverage whatsoever.

New revelations prove volkswagen cars are even dirtier[edit | edit source]

On November 3rd, Volkswagen announced that NOx emissions weren't the only problem on their cars, CO² emissions and fuel consumption were also different from the official levels. And this also affected some petrol cars. This was another sign that Volkswagen's “green” reputation wasn't deserved at all. Because “green” cars have to be fuel efficient and emit very little CO². If not they have a big impact on the environment, namely global warming. What's more, the Volkswagen brand cars weren't the only ones to be concerned by these new revelations, other brands from the Volkswagen group were as well.

These brands were Audi, Skoda and Seat, and around 800,000 cars were affected by these irregularities. On November 20th, the NOx emissions issues also turned out to be larger than expected as Volkswagen informed the EPA that all 3.0 TDI diesel engines sold in the USA from 2009 to 2015 had the “defeat device” and therefore had higher NOx emissions in real driving conditions than their test levels. These new revelations show that the issue of Volkswagen's diesel car is a huge case of manipulation and that we probably still don't know the whole extent of the fraud that Volkswagen conducted in order to sell their highly polluting cars despite legal limits of emissions.

The cost of Volkswagen's lies on the people and the environment[edit | edit source]

It's not just that Volkswagen lied and decided not to respect the laws normal citizens have to respect if they don't want to end up in jail. It's that Volkswagen's fraud had a tremendous cost for the environment and people's health. The illegal emissions worsened the already dire air pollution in numerous world cities and have also contributed to serious environmental disruptions like acid rains or smog. This has all had a disastrous effect on people's health. According to a peer reviewed study published in October 2015, almost 60 people have died because of the excess of NOx emissions Volkswagen diesel cars caused. About 90 % of the victims are estimated to have died because of particle pollution whereas a little more than 10 % died because of ozone exposure.

Apart from the people who died, the study also estimates that the Volkswagen car related emissions probably caused more than 30 cases of chronic bronchitis, about 35 hospital admissions for lung or heart issues, and 120,000 cases where people had to reduce their activities because they were sick from the pollution. The cost of the health impacts of the emissions amounts to around $910 million according to the study. And this study only covers the impact of the cars that were sold in the USA. The number of victims of Volkswagen's fraud is even bigger if we look at the whole world. And this is what makes Volkswagen's lies so wrong, they have put their corporate profit before people's lives. And they should be punished ruthlessly, as they showed no pity in intentionally endangering the lives of numerous people all around the world.

Civil and criminal lawsuits launched by the American government[edit | edit source]

Volkswagen faces numerous trials throughout the world, from governments and customers alike. In the United States, the EPA has launched a procedure to inflict fines that can reach $37,500 per car, which would amount to $18 billion altogether. As revelations broadened the extent of violations, the total amount of potential penalties swelled to $46 billion. But fines are not all the Volkswagen has to worry about in the United States. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that a criminal investigation was open and could lead to a criminal trial : “no company should be allowed to evade our environmental laws or promise consumers a fake bill of goods", he stated. What makes the case all the more infuriating is that instead of cooperating with American justice and facing the consequences of its decisions, Volkswagen is using devious ways to stall the procedure.

The car maker “has been slow to produce documents from its US files, it has sought to delay responses until it completes its ‘independent investigation’ several months from now", Schneiderman said. Volkswagen repeatedly used German law as a shield to slow down the American investigation which is a travesty of justice. It's always appalling to see that International corporations think national regulations are a hindrance when they want to sell their products, and they fight these regulations with fierce lobbying. But when the tables are turned and they face lawsuits, then national regulations become all of a sudden legitimate to them and they make use of every norm that can soften the penalties they risk. These government investigations and lawsuits are starting in other countries all around the world. Switzerland has even decided to forbid the sales of Volkswagen diesel cars altogether.

Angry customers sue Volkswagen too[edit | edit source]

Government's are not the only ones that have been misled by Volkswagen's lies and that demands justice: the customers who had trusted the car maker and the environmental standards of its cars are furious as well and they have every right to be. These people were basically conned into buying cars that were supposed to be state of the art award-winning green cars that would be safe for the environment and that would keep a high value. Instead they got dirty, polluting cars with a dramatically diminished value.

Thanks again, car industry ! These cheated customers were not convinced by Volkswagen's feeble attempts to compensate them and have filed suit to demand reparation. In November, 90,000 Australian owners of Volkswagen diesel cars have formed a class action against the car maker, demanding $100 million in damages. And in the United States, as of today, 500 class actions have been consolidated before a federal judge to order Volkswagen to compensate for the damage it has done. This customer anger reflects the trust that people used to have for Volkswagen and how poorly the company has repaid the customers for that trust, instead it lied and cheated them.

A scandal that proves yet again that big corporations are irresponsible players[edit | edit source]

Broader lessons need to be learned from this scandal, and the first lesson is that you can't trust big corporations to act responsibly. And this scandal isn't the only example to support that view. The history of the car industry is already saturated with similar cases of manipulation and fraud by car companies that were trying to cheat environmental norms. In 1973 Chrysler, Toyota, General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen (hello again !) were fined for having built temperature switches that hid emissions in their cars. In 1995, General Motors was condemned to pay $45 million because it had sold about 470,000 Cadillacs with “defeat devices” that hid emissions. In 1998 it was Honda and Ford's turn to pay heavy fines because they had sold vehicles with “defeat devices”.

So as we can see, this is really not a Volkswagen issue. This is a car industry issue. The car industry corporations have become so bloated and so profit-hungry that they use every dirty trick they can to cut corners and make more money even at the cost of air quality and people's lives. So it's time to treat the car industry corporations like the repeated offenders that they are and place them under a ruthless scrutiny. And when (not if because, as history has shown, car makers cheat sooner or later) they cheat regulations again, they have to be mercilessly punished and the decision makers like Winterkorn have to be held personally accountable and face criminal charges in court. This man's decision led to dozens of deaths and countless health issues. Any man that does that with a gun would end his life in jail. Why should it be any different if the deed is done with a pencil or a computer ?

A scandal that stresses the fact that our economic model is outdated[edit | edit source]

The other lessons to be learned from this scandal is that we desperately need to change the way the economy works, and we need to change it radically. Quick fixes like “green diesel cars” are proving to be empty promises as this emissions scandal proves. Diesel cars are a thing of the past, they are not safe for people, they are not safe for the environment and they should be forgotten altogether. Why set standards for “clean diesel” ? This is only inviting the car industry to cheat as it always has and always will. Diesel cars must be banned period. And all the money that Volkswagen and other car makers are investing into making more advanced diesel engines (when it's not invested into building cheating devices of course !) would be better spent on hybrid or electrical engines that we know are the engines of the future, and the only way to develop means of transportation that won't make us sick and that won't destroy the environment.

States are responsible for this scandal for they have not encouraged the transition to hybrid and electrical engines and because of that diesel engines continue to appear economically relevant for car makers. Also, this scandal is a sign that the idea that everyone can and should have a car is crazy. The more cars on the roads the more emissions we breathe day in day out (especially when the cars don't respect regulations !). So there has to be game-changing decisions to organize cities so that people can take public transportation, carpool or walk. There has to be investment in clean means of transportation like railways. We have to switch out of this automobile dependent society that is gradually destroying our air and our health.