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By Russ Finley on Sep 27, 2015 with 13 responses

Thoughts on the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal


Photo Credit The Environmental Blog

Volkswagen was just caught cheating on emissions tests for some of its diesel-powered cars. As a result, their stock price has plummeted. I no longer have to deal with emissions tests because we own a 2006 Prius and a 2011 Leaf, neither of which require testing because one has a SULE (Super Ultra Low Emissions) rating and the the other doesn’t have a tail pipe.

You can’t fake acceleration or gas mileage, but apparently you can fake out emissions tests by installing software capable of detecting when an emissions test is being conducted (via the diagnostic plug in your dash board) that will lean out the fuel mixture and alter the timing (among other things) so the car will pass the test, returning it to normal when the test ends.

I was fooled. Following is a comment I made last year on this subject:

These are all valid points but controlling pollution is mostly a matter of innovation and engineering. You are not necessarily limited by thermodynamics. For example, compare the mileage of the very dirty 2006 diesel Jetta to the very clean 2014 diesel Jetta.

In general, I try not to participate in media feeding frenzies. Here in the States, many diesel Jetta and Golf purchase decisions are based at least partially on the perception that these cars are more environmentally friendly than most. And truth be told, even with these higher emissions, they still are more environmentally friendly when compared to the vast majority of cars sold in the United States. And unlike some other car manufacturer cover ups, this one didn’t involve fatalities or injuries.


I created the above graphic from the EPA Green Vehicle website. Note that since 2006, the Golf appeared to have  improved its gas mileage more than 9% and its smog rating five fold (32 mpg to 35 mpg and 1 to 5 respectively).

Back in 2006 many States did not allow the sale of new Jettas or Golfs because of their emissions. Volkswagen decided not to sell them at all in the U.S. in 2007 and 2008 (those model years for diesel Jettas and Golfs are missing in the EPA Green Vehicle data base). In 2009 they introduced their new and improved versions that ostensibly met EPA standards, however (engineering being the art of compromise), they came with engineering compromises that would  have degraded performance and therefore, sales, which eventually led to the emissions software cheat.

 So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is trust. They cheated customers to sell cars. Some owners, instead of being proud of their environmentally friendly car, will now be embarrassed by it. Surely Volkswagen knew this deception would eventually be exposed. They may have been anticipating a modest fine of some kind. Instead they have seen a drastic decline in stock value and I would not be surprised if this results in a permanent rejection of the Volkswagen brand by many American consumers. But again, maybe they were planning to rename the company anyway!

Now, having said all that, we might want to brace ourselves. Volkswagen may just be the first one caught. Read Biofuel Makers May Have Known About Volkswagen Emissions Rigging for Years.

There are still a lot of people out there clinging to the idea that diesel engines burning biodiesel made from soy, or canola, or palm, have the potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions but that idea has been pretty thoroughly studied by now. Most news you read today about biodiesel made from food stock is hype from those financially invested in biodiesel. Read Third Person Sentenced in Las Vegas for International Biofuel Fraud Conspiracy.

Coincidentally, our neighbors sold their first generation 2001 Prius and bought a 2015 diesel Golf just a few weeks ago. I test drove it. Great car, especially when compared to the soot belching, engine rattling, 2006 version once so popular with biodiesel enthusiasts. They had a difficult time choosing between a Prius and the Golf. Had this news arrived just a few weeks earlier, they would likely be driving a Prius today and that is an example of why Volkswagen should pay dearly for what they just did.

  1. By Advocatus Diaboli on September 28, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    “They cheated customers to sell cars.”
    Well, they did and it was not ‘nice’. However, it isn’t primarily their consumers they have cheated. They cheated onvrules that are there to protect not consumers buying their cars, but the rest of us. I understand that some consumers opted for VW for the environmental credentials, and they have badly been let down. However, they are not the biggest loosers. They wanted a car and they got it, and cars have major impacts on the environment. These cars turned out to have a somewhat higher impact than claimed, but in the big scheme of things it hardly makes a difference. What really matters are unchanged: material to build the car, oil to run it, CO2 emitted, road space allowing one to drive it, space to park it, etc. All these are unchanged. And your quasi-electric cars are not a whole lot better either. Better in certain respects, worse in others, and awful altogether compared to most other means of transport. And utterly unsustainable. It is not like no tailpipe – no impact.

    • By Russ Finley on September 28, 2015 at 5:12 pm

      Can’t argue with anything you said, still, I hope they adequately compensate those who bought the cars for lost resale value, lost stature in their monkey troop etc.

  2. By Forrest on September 29, 2015 at 8:00 am

    We shouldn’t attempt to copy and attribute intelligence to European ideals. They offer little in superior decision making. I think way to many Americans are romanticizing their lifestyle and attempt to bring these fantasies onshore. Some how we skip over Greece problems, why is that? Including the control or problems of immigration. Diesel fuel is not a superior environmental solution. Just the opposite. Hopefully, we are learning the truth before making a huge mistake.
    Our country has developed leadership within biofuel production, but we refuse to capitalize on the movement. We achieve more than all other countries, yet willingly dis the solution and run to European diesel solution. We have very capable technology sitting on the bench, unexploited. Cummings for one has modified their diesel engine to ultra low emission with E85 fuel. Read the test data of this powerful solution to environmental needs. The engine delivered 2x the combustion chamber pressure a.k.a. torque. Beat gasoline engine Mpg and operated at diesel engine cost. A major reduction in PM pollution as well as NOx. The engine accomplished this with low cost traditional catalytic converter pollution control. How did this engine accomplish such a feat when all consumers familiar with lower mileage of flex vehicles? This engine was optimized for E85 fuel and not a flex engine. They exploited the ethanol fuel character to maximum advantage. For example, short stroke piston travel will reduce engine friction and high boost pressure will improve engine efficiency. Both of which work extremely well with ethanol fuel. NOx emissions will always increased in typical fossil fuel engine per the increase temperature of efficient engine operation. Ethanol engine can be downsized as the fuel already contains 35% liquid oxygen. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our atmosphere and will chemically combine with oxygen upon high combustion temperatures. Very nice to already have fuel with pure oxygen on board. The E85 engine will naturally produce less Nox per the same torque production. Our politics have unfairly punched ethanol to sideline per bogus accusations of “blend wall” that was to willingly picked up by all who fear losing their cherished solutions to pollution control. So, wouldn’t this engine pull the fuel off the blend wall? The engine was rated at 85% reduction in CO2 production. A figure that is beyond all current solutions including BEV operation on grid power, and do so on a cost savings.

  3. By John Jennrich on September 29, 2015 at 10:28 am

    The problem with electric cars (unless the electricity is entirely self-generated) is that the owner is substituting coal for gasoline (or diesel). True, no local emissions, but the coal-fired-power emissions are still affecting the planet. Probably better just to get better fuel mileage and use public transit when you can.

    • By Russ Finley on September 29, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      …unless the electricity is entirely self-generated …

      What do you mean by self-generated? Electric cars are not perpetual motion machines.

      …[electric cars subsistute] coal for gasoline (or diesel) …

      This is true only where electric cars are being charged by electricity produced by coal. 60% of our electricity does not come from coal. Some parts of the country are cleaner than others. Where I drive, 95% of the power comes from a combination of hydro, wind, and nuclear. The ideas behind electric cars is to simultaneously get rid of coal, which is actually happening in the U.S. thanks to natural gas prices.

      • By Forrest on September 29, 2015 at 3:53 pm

        Did you read the University study that compared environmental impact of utilizing N.G within the grid and charging the BEV to that of various auto technologies utilizing the fuel directly. The biggest bang for the buck, with biggest impact on reducing emissions was the natural gas fueled hybrid. Environmentalist could do more, by supporting this path. That was an eye opener as E85 fuel is a few notches above N.G. per environmental benefit and low cost refueling with zero cost within vehicle modification/adaptation. The study would indicate the sensibility of moving to higher blend ethanol fuels and value to Environmentalist to choose hybrids such as Prius. Also, auto manufacturers claim the mild hybrid will be ubiquitous within the fleet and amount to line item within vehicle options list.

        • By CMCNestT . on September 29, 2015 at 4:17 pm

          All studies that don’t have EVs as lowest impact on the environment assume EVs add to base load of the grid, EVs are purchased at the same rate across every market, and that the grid will not get cleaner.

          None of these are true. Most EV charging is done off peak when most of the electricity is being wasted on standby.Environmentally, this is the equivalent of a free lunch. Where the electric grid is cleaner, say California and Washington State, the pickup rate for EVs is much higher. Not many EVs in Kentucky or West Virginia. Google “Obama war on coal.” The grid is getting cleaner. In areas where interest in EVs grows so does interest in cleaning up the grid.

          • By Forrest on September 30, 2015 at 7:57 am

            That is an ideal condition, something attempted by those with electric heat and hot water as well. This Univ of Toronto study was GHG emissions of the various N.G. fueled transportation vehicles and surprising benefits of cost of ownership and very low emissions for hybrid compressed N.G. vehicle. It’s hard to know the grid emission side or the efficiency as each utility different. Russ lives in area of hydro power, an ideal situation for BEV as well as any other electrical devices, but placing a BEV in this zone just means less green power for other devices. The grid has much need for low pollution power. Coal power, as all grid power, suffers with power balancing inefficiency problems. Plants sit in idle mode waiting for wind power loss or change in consumption. While a steam turbine may be 34% peak efficient, actual efficiency below 30%, grid distribution efficiency may drop another 4%-7% and BEV changing may drop efficiency another 10% as I just read from University study. The gas turbine run 10% higher, but utilizing the fuel directly within hybrid compares well.
            By the way, isn’t it crazy the environmentalist moving to electric power for home energy. Considering those whom have access to natural gas and the cost savings to utilize btu’s from natural gas energy source. Even with heat pumps or geothermal it doesn’t make sense and with its high investment cost and higher maintenance. A gas line is very efficient for btu distribution and energy storage system. Here in Michigan we can store seasonal gas in depleted oil wells. The grid is temperamental, fragile, requires maximum control, can store no energy, requires expensive infrastructure, and high maintenance. The public has an inaccurate image of the grid.

        • By Null66 on October 19, 2015 at 10:25 am

          Is there a Natural Gas hybrid produced in quantity?

  4. By CMCNestT . on September 29, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Because of the extra NOx and small particulates released into the air untold number of children will get asthma and untold number of senior citizens with pulmonary diseases will die prematurely.Then there is the increase in cancer rates. But no, no one died while driving or being driven inside a VW Group diesel.

  5. By TimC on September 29, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I have an idea that just might completely exonerate VW/Audi from this entire scandal: VW should announce that they have invented a brand new technology, called Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), and they will be the first automaker in the world to offer SCR in their entire line of diesel car models.

    Now, I know what the VW engineers will say (in a strong German accent): “That’s completely impractical! Sure SCR can reduce NOx emissions to low levels, but it’s way too complex and expensive for use in passenger vehicles! And anyway, we didn’t invent SCR, it’s been around for decades.”

    But hold on, VW. Didn’t your Audi folks just recently announce that they had developed a breakthrough, carbon-neutral technology to produce diesel from air and water? And didn’t you get tons of great press from that announcement? And isn’t that technology also way too expensive, and completely impractical, and based on chemistry that’s been around for decades?

    Think about it: VW can claim that SCR is an exciting breakthrough technology that will reduce diesel NOx emissions and clean the air for children and animals. The fact that SCR has been around for decades? Well, that can be our little secret. The useful idiots in the news media will forget all about VW’s fraudulent emissions tests, and fawn all over them again, the way they did over their “diesel fuel from air and water” nonsense. VW/Audi can be environmental heroes again! They should give it a try. At this point, what do they have to lose?

    • By Russ Finley on September 29, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      …always enjoy good sarcasm ; )

  6. By Forrest on October 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

    I think all the outrage from public is a bit unfair. Apparently the cheating was well known secret. A wink wink look the other way acceptance by government that was motivated to accept new technology of diesel engine as the preferred direction to pull the auto market. Often regulators aren’t exactly reactive upon such low level discoveries that don’t make it up the chain of command per the “I see nothing” approach. Usually, the exercise will only blow up later at an extreme cost and funding of government. Infractions such as Willie Nelson IRS cheating that blows up to $$millions per time value of penalties. This phenomenon of government funding popular and sad. They will allow violations and prefer to look the other way even if hurting the environment and health. This is a very bad conflict of interests and needs to be fully prosecuted by unbiased A.G. Also, their should be within law a motivation to cure problems quick for citizen benefit. Regulators should not inherit wealth by poor job performance. They need to share risk per active participants in decision making. Currently, their profession image improves when acting within incompetence, ignorance, or laziness. They can defend themselves by claiming more taxpayer funding needed. What would be the motivation to nip this problem in the bud? Would citizens applaud the regulation industry for keeping cheating and costs down? We really should be equally outraged at the regulation industry for their ineptness. Also, we should look to industry to fully understand the cost of these regulation and high motives to cheat. Something is horribly afoul here and it taint just evil business and saintly gov’t.

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