Volkswagen Lied to Us But We’re Also Maybe Lying to Ourselves

Volkswagen Lied to Us But We’re Also Maybe Lying to Ourselves

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,2 March 2016

Volkswagen may soon reach a deal in the $46 billion lawsuit that U.S. regulators filed against them. The lawsuit was the result of the discovery last September that VW had installed a so-called “defeat device” in a number of diesel models, which was designed to cheat emissions tests. The “device” was software that could detect when the car was undergoing emissions testing and run the engine during the test in such a way that it had low emissions. However, when the car was being driven in normal circumstances the engine would have better power and performance and the emissions would be much higher. VW wasn’t able to build the car they wanted, with very high power and performance and very low emissions, so instead they built software that lied.

As lies go VW’s was pretty monumental; it involved 600,000 cars in the U.S. and 11 million worldwide. They violated a number of environmental laws, the emissions from the affected cars were 40 times the legal limit, the cars were part of the cash for clunkers program. Plus, over $20million in federal funds (tax payer money) was used to subsidize the purchase of some of these cars because they were supposed to be “greener,” and other companies lost out on sales because they were competing against a car with falsified specs. This was a huge lie with all kinds of long lasting affects. But there may be another bigger lie that we’re ignoring here.

America as a culture wants to believe that we can have a sustainable future without drastically changing our relationship with cars. This is something that we want to believe so badly that we demand that car companies make it true. We want cars that run on sunshine and emit rainbows, but still go 0 to 60 in 3 seconds, and have enough room to carry 6 people and put our kayaks on top. Not so long ago car companies could have laughed us off and told us it was impossible, but then Tesla actually did it. Now all the other car companies have to do it too, or at least try, or in the case of VW, lie about trying. But if we’re relying on low emission or electric vehicles to save us from carbon emissions and by extension global warming, then we may be lying to ourselves just as blatantly as VW lied to us.

As of 2013, about 27% of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation. And over half of those transportation emissions come from passenger vehicles and light duty trucks. If we all switched to electric cars and trucks that would cut emissions some, but it’s unclear how much because electricity production is also responsible for about 30% of U.S. carbon emissions. Switching from a car that runs on gas to a car that runs on electricity that was generated by burning coal is not going to be the solution to our greenhouse problems. If we all completely stopped driving over the next ten years but didn’t change anything else, we’d only be about half way to reaching the Paris Agreement goals. In other words, changing our car culture is going to be absolutely necessary for a sustainable future, but it’s not going to be enough alone.

Volkswagen didn’t create America’s car culture, and this situation didn’t happen over night, it didn’t happen accidentally, and it wasn’t inevitable. It’s the result of decades of effort by the car industry and others to influence consumer behavior and public opinion, secure government assistance for the auto industry, have gas subsidized, create and promote car-centric infrastructure, and possibly eliminate competing modes of transportation. That means that changing our reliance on cars is going to be hard and take time, but it is possible. And there are already some programs being developed and implemented like Smart Growth and Mobility Management which can help us end our national reliance on cars.

A couple weeks ago there were reports that the EPA was asking VW to manufacture electric cars in the U.S. as part of the settlement. These reports haven’t been confirmed by the EPA or VW, but whether or not it’s true it presents an interesting idea. Maybe as part of the settlement VW needs to make amends not just in terms of money but in terms of emissions. Having them build a lot more electric cars would be good, but if we’re really serious about lowering emissions maybe we can get VW to pay for creating new sidewalks and bike lanes.

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Image Credit: Francis Storr on Flickr



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