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Volkswagen Got Away with Fraud and Environmental Damage Because Europe Dropped the Ball

Since Volkswagen was exposed for installing a “defeat device” in its diesel vehicles for the purpose of cheating emissions tests, the big question on everyone’s mind is: why?

One reason that has been given is consumer appeal. Filtering harmful nitrous oxide emissions from diesel exhaust comes at a price in terms of performance and fuel consumption. When emissions controls are activated, the vehicle becomes less responsive, while mileage is significantly reduced. However, this is only part of the equation. The fact is that Volkswagen was responding to consumer demand.

The primary intention driving this demand was a good one: concern over climate change. Diesel engines burn one-fifth less fuel that their gasoline-powered counterparts, and are more durable. As a result, many European governments provide tax breaks for diesel fuel and vehicles. Unfortunately, there is a trade-off: greater fuel efficiency means higher levels of nitrous oxide emissions.  Several European automakers in addition to VW claimed to have addressed the problem by installing nitrous oxide traps in diesel-powered models. Yet, nitrous oxide levels in many European cities are far higher than they should be. Last year, a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that new diesel vehicles sold in the E.U. emit seven times the legal limit of nitrous oxide. Another study from King’s College in London attributes nearly 6,000 deaths a year in that city to nitrous oxide pollution.

Considering the U.S. record on environmental issues, it is ironic that allowable levels of nitrous oxide emissions here at home are half of what they are in the E.U. Furthermore, U.S. vehicle emissions testing is more rigorous, and more closely reflects actual driving conditions. European agencies use equipment and test protocols dating back over twenty years.

According to a recent report from Financial Times, E.U. officials were informed about problems with nitrous oxide compliance in February of 2013 – approximately one year after the European Commission made the decision not to provide funding for a full ICCT study of diesel emissions. At the time, Environmental Commissioner Janez Potochik wrote a letter, advising his colleagues that the outdated testing methods and protocols could enable auto manufacturers to skirt regulations: “There are widespread concerns that [automotive] performance has been tailored tightly to compliance with the test cycle in disregard of the dramatic increase in emissions outside that narrow scope.”

This is exactly what happened at VW.  Then, in 2014, the ICCT conducted a scaled-down version of its original study. The results of that study raised red flags in the U.S., leading to the current investigation of VW’s “defeat device” (actually a piece of software programmed into the vehicle’s computer). Another ironic aspect of the entire affair is that while over half of the new vehicles sold in Europe are diesel-powered, the market for passenger diesel cars in the U.S. is only about 1 percent.  Given that diesel emissions pose a far greater threat to public health in the E.U. than in the U.S., why were European legislators so slow to take action when the evidence was right there in plain sight?

As always, it’s about revenues and profits. VW, as well as other German and French auto manufacturers, have been focusing on diesel technologies for many years. Unfortunately, “clean diesel” technology is expensive – and drivers aren’t willing to pay the extra costs for that technology. Furthermore, new limits on carbon emissions for gasoline-powered vehicles over the next six years are discouraging drivers from switching over from their diesel cars. At the same time, there is little demand for hybrids, most of which are manufactured in Japan.

The fact remains that European regulators waited until the crisis was in full public view before taking any concrete action – despite having been made aware of the problem over two years ago. Winston Churchill once quipped that “Americans will always do the right thing – once they’ve tried everything else.” This time, it was the Europeans who dropped the ball – and the planet is a dirtier place because of it.