By now, nearly everyone has heard of the scandal involving millions of automobiles built by Volkswagen. Many of the company’s popular diesel cars were equipped with a computer able to determine when emission tests were being performed. At such times, the computer activated pollution controls that reduced emissions to legal levels. Under normal driving conditions, however, emission controls were disabled, resulting in higher performance, greater gas (diesel?) mileage, and increased air pollution.
One can understand how the company thought it could get away with its computer legerdemain. The software that implemented the deception is not easily accessed and was unlikely to arouse suspicion. After all, the cars tested well for emissions, though customers may have had their doubts observing their vehicles under real-world conditions.
Proponents of unbridled capitalism would argue that the potential financial exposure entailed in the VW design should have prevented its implementation. Obviously, the system didn’t work that way. The reward for dishonesty was high, and the likelihood of exposure was low.
Volkswagen has admitted to its end-run around environmental regulations, and its CEO has resigned. It has not been revealed who was responsible for devising the diesel subterfuge, but it is impossible to believe that the scheme wasn’t hatched at the very highest level of management, since the scheme affected vehicles as total systems.
VW faces enormous fines, possible criminal indictments, a crash in its stock price, and possible consumer lawsuits. Moreover, it will have to “fix” more than 11 million diesel automobiles.
What kind of fix is even possible? The software must be replaced with code that makes emission testing valid. That change alone, however, would leave owners with high polluting vehicles that, in many locations, would not even be legal to have on the road. If the software applies pollution controls under all operating conditions, owners will have vehicles with reduced performance, reduced fuel efficiency, and reduced resale value. I predict that owners will not like that. As it is, many buyers thought they were buying a car that was good for the environment, and they are angry that they were deceived.
A fully acceptable fix, then, must reduce emissions without affecting fuel efficiency or performance. This is a huge technological challenge, as locomotive builders, who now must meet strict emission standards, can attest. It is not even clear that the affected vehicles can be appropriately modified using their existing engines. My guess is that the Volkswagen automobiles were designed with the assumption that meeting emission regulations on a day-to-day basis was unnecessary, and a retrofit that removes that design criterion may be impossible, at least at any reasonable cost.
My guess is that VW will either have to buy back 11 million vehicles or, if owners are willing, swap the defective ones for replacements that actually do what was promised. Personally, I would take the money and buy a new car from a different manufacturer. I would never again buy a Volkswagen.