Das Auto. Das Scam.

Volkswagen now faces potential fines of up to $18 billion in the US

When assistant professor Arvind Thiruvengadam at the West Virginia University applied for a grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) to augment resources at his modest lab involved with testing emissions of vehicles, little did he realise that he and his team would help bring the auto giant Volkswagen down to its knees.

The ICCT, an international non-profit organisation with presence in India as well, is mandated with steering vanguard efforts aimed at reducing vehicular pollution and assisting regulators in this endeavour with necessary scientific wherewithal. When John German of ICCT’s US entity had received reports from his European counterpart Peter Mock, who had noticed serious discrepancies in emission levels in certain diesel cars, he decided to enlist the services of West Virginia University. For the three cars Mr German had acquired for testing, of which two were Volkswagen models, Dr Thiruvengadam’s team used a portable emission testing equipment that could be fitted into the boot of a car with a probe in the exhaust.

What then unfolded is a saga that has destroyed the German car manufacturer’s rock solid reputation as the leader of the automobile industry worthy of the world’s trust and as a firm that held itself accountable to the highest of standards. It took some time, but this is what roughly followed after Mr German and Dr Thiruvengadam’s teams started working together.

The first results from the car boot equipment were indeed baffling, with emission levels of NOx gases — a serious health hazard to humans and other life — observed to be 35 times higher than the accepted US regulator’s norm. NOx is the generic term that refers to the oxides of nitrogen, like nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. The testing teams then, worried that the testing process may be flawed, re-ran the tests over even longer distances. The results were no different. The ICCT handed over their reports in May 2014 to the US’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board, as well as sent copies to Volkswagen.

In the subsequent meetings that ensued, Volkswagen was unfazed and sought to find fault with the testing procedures. The car giant even claimed that researchers and regulators cannot easily grasp all the technicalities involved. It was the California Air Resources Board that eventually got to the mischievous lines of code, now known as the “cheat device” that was causing the fraud to happen.

Volkswagen had programmed the car to recognise when it was on the test bed or dynamometer and then tune the engine automatically to keep the NOx emissions within limits and give excellent results by getting the engine to under-perform. Once out in the real world, the car’s onboard computer programme would revert to normal functioning that spewed out gases at poisonous levels, while the mileage improved. This has been going on from 2009. Cheating had been perfected into a high art.

Even in the face of mounting evidence that there was wrongdoing, Volkswagen continued to evade and parleys dragged on for nearly a year. It was only after the EPA threatened with withdrawal of approval for their forthcoming diesel cars, that Volkswagen finally admitted wrongdoing and plunged the firm and the car industry into a dark scandal that has shocked the world. That they could stoop so low and plumb such depths of dishonesty came as a surprise to all. Volkswagen has since admitted that 1.1 crore of their cars have this “cheat code” — only about five lakh of these are in the US.

The majority are in Europe and elsewhere rendering the air poisonous and they will continue to do so for at least another 10 years, even if corrections are enforced now. This also means that anywhere between 250,000 to one million tonnes of these toxic gases have been put into the air over and above the intended limit envisaged every year. Volkswagen now faces potential fines of up to $18 billion in the US.

Incalculable harm has been caused to life and the planet by a callous car manufacturer, which wanted to overtake its nearest rival and establish itself as the world No. 1. In order to get to that goal, Volkswagen needed to expand its market in America. It rode on the climate change commercial rhetoric by presenting its diesel cars as environment friendly, citing additional mileage they could give. It even ran commercials showing its engineers as environmental angels. But it solved the question of the resulting higher NOx emissions through an unscrupulous shortcut. Despite a staggering research and development budget at its disposal, Volkswagen never invested seriously in electric cars or other cleaner technologies.

There is a larger lesson to be learnt here — about the intransigent ways of big businesses on the global stage. They show scant regard for people and the planet, often running roughshod over regulators and governments to meet their profit goals. Because these companies provide jobs and bring prosperity to regions such as what Volkswagen has done in lower Saxony in Germany, governments get muted and readily sacrifice the long-term well-being of people and the planet for short-term results. Thanks to the tough stance taken by the regulators in the US, the lax emission standards and even laxer testing procedures in Europe now stand exposed.

Governments across the world should not allow the knowledge gap between regulators and industry to grow. As Dr Thiruvengadam points, “academia and universities have a key role to play in helping regulators not only with real world validation of the regulatory framework, but in helping with the regulator’s compliance efforts as well”.

Governments should strive to ensure there’s a framework where academics in universities and institutes of higher learning are not just pressed into the service of businesses alone. Knowledge neutrality is and must be key. In fact, regulators should acquire the same agility businesses have. Capability to work with hundreds of thousands of lines of code on modern cars should be within the reach of the regulator. Usually, within the paradigm of the industry setting the norms and practices to regulate itself governments end up conniving or putting up a listless presence.

Car manufactures with deep pockets, for example, are able to let these ambivalent states of affairs to come about and prevail. This should change and be replaced by a responsible assertiveness on the part of governments. It is true that enterprises bring endless energy, but they cannot be allowed to run amuck. Effective checks are not synonymous with being obstructive or anti-enterprise.

In order to sport a pro-growth image, governments cannot afford to forsake their key responsibilities of safeguarding the health of people and the planet. And in emerging economies such as ours, this is even more important. Being investor friendly does not mean you dilute a robust regulatory regime and put the collective future at risk.

The author is a freelance writer, researching subjects related to the environment and economics

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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