Volkswagen Scandal: Essentials and Silver Lining

By now nearly everybody has heard about Volkswagen’s calculated subversion of EPA emissions tests. The company installed a “defeat device” in the software of certain vehicles that restricted emissions during tests, but which let emissions run wild on the road — up to 40 times the legal amount. VW has admitted to manipulating software to bypass these tests since 2008. The scandal has already cut $26.8 billion out of VW’s market cap, and the automaker will receive a regulatory penalty of up to $18 billion. Additionally VW is likely to face class-action lawsuits.

Nobody is happy about this breach of public trust and subversion of public health in the short-sighted interest of profits. However, there is a silver lining. This kind of foul play is henceforth more likely to get caught and will, in turn, happen less often. We can expect regulatory agencies around the world to put vehicles through the same simple test that led John German to discover VW’s defeat device: check the emissions of the vehicle in its natural environment, i.e. when it is being driven on the road, and not just in the predictable and circumventable environment of a dynamometer lab.

This fiasco also underscores the importance of independent organizations and whistleblowers who take regulatory compliance into their own hands. John German is US co-lead of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a reportedly “small nonprofit organisation dedicated to helping to reduce vehicle emissions and [which] has an annual budget of just $12m.” All it took was a little bit of ingenuity, elbow grease, and collaboration with West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions to expose one of the most significant corporate failings in history — with the result of swift justice and a healthier, more reliable future regulatory system. The little man/woman can take on Big Wrongdoing and come out on top, ultimately to the benefit of collective human society.

From another angle: if VW’s vehicles had all been electric, VW would not be reeling from scandal right now. That is because electric vehicles are emissions-free and thus — big surprise — cannot help but rock the emissions tests. It is likely that this event will see more individuals considering an EV as their future mode of transportation, especially those VW owners who have been most impacted.