The historic $14.7-billion-dollar settlement between Volkswagen and US regulators has commitment from the carmaker to invest close to $2 billion to promote zero-emission vehicles and another $2.7 billion for environmental clean-up projects. Although there is a significant push for electric vehicles in many parts of the world, it is highly unlikely there would be a large shift from the use of liquid-fuel based vehicles to zero emissions electric vehicles. Lack of charger infrastructure, range of EVs, cost and the state of electric grids makes internal combustion engines a favorable powertrain for many years to come.
But both diesel and gasoline engines have evolved over the years to deliver both high fuel economy and lower emissions. The VW case showed the world, the high-emitting potential of modern diesel cars due to unethical engineering to circumvent emissions regulation. And this incident also showcases the importance of stringent regulation and constant monitoring of engine manufacturers.
Although stringent regulations appear to be the path towards cleaner future air, developing countries face the problem of high emissions from a large population of older technology (legacy) vehicles. During my recent visit to India and Nepal, I was overwhelmed by the large population of high-emitting mass transit vehicles that are equipped with legacy engine technology. The turnover rate of these older technology vehicles is either very slow or non-existent in developing countries. Uncontrolled emissions from these legacy engines could offset any environmental benefits gained by a small number of cleaner current technology vehicles.
Fleet modernisation then is important to realize complete benefits of future stringent regulation. Both the general public and state-owned vehicles must be provided economic incentives to adopt cleaner vehicles.
Furthermore, plans to phase in newer technology through planned regulations must be undertaken to force influx of newer and cleaner technology.
To put things into perspective, the first emissions regulation for heavy-duty vehicles in India were established in 1996. A NOx standard of 14.4 g/kw-hr with no standards for particulate matter (PM) was adopted. In comparison, the USEPA emissions regulation for the same year regulated NOx and PM at 6.7 and 0.13 g/kw-hr respectively. A significant vehicle population compliant to the 1996 standard and still operational in the heavy transportation sector in India will be associated with high levels of uncontrolled soot emissions. These high emitters could contribute towards significant air quality issues that cannot be simply addressed by setting newer standards for future vehicles.
Placing a ban on a certain technology is probably not the appropriate pathway either. Such pathways can lead to the use of alternative fuels such as LPG or CNG fueled engines but improper implementation of these technologies will not provide relief from environment damage.
Countries such as India should instead focus on phasing out older diesel and gasoline vehicles, both from the heavy-duty and passenger car segment. Such fleet modernisation plans will yield quicker result in air quality improvements in a country that has been plagued by air quality woes and constant growth of vehicular population.