Volkswagen’s admission that it cheated on U.S. emissions tests for nearly 500,000 diesel VWs and Audis should infuriate every American who draws breath. But in California, it’s a especially devious blow.
Diesel exhaust is usually filthy, packed with smog-making particulates and nitrogen-oxide gases. Diesel soot is a carcinogen and contibutes to asthma. That’s why California has restricted it for decades.
In 2002, when the Legislature passed a bill regulating tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, European automakers and manufacturers of emissions-control equipment persuaded our air quality officials that, with new technology, they could meet those new greenhouse gas standards and reduce the NOx and particulates spewed by diesel engines.
“Clean diesel” sounded like a win-win; state and federal authorities wanted the historic new standards to progress smoothly. In fact, the California law helped shape federal regulations and pave the way for the modern age of Priuses, Volts and Teslas.
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Clean diesel seemed like a way for the industry to transition. Even the then-head of the state Air Resources Board shared his high hopes.
As it turns out, the clean-diesel poster child was just playing dirty. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got around to accusing Volkswagen of rigging its automotive software to artificially lower emissions readings during tests. The EPA wouldn’t have noticed unless a small, independent research institute – International Council on Clean Transportation – hadn’t run its own tests in 2014 and alerted authorities.
What the lab discovered was that while being tested, the cars’ computers contained a so-called “defeat device” that enabled diesel Beetles, Passats, Golfs, Jettas and Audis to meet U.S. pollution standards. Once on the road, the defeat device was disabled and the cars actually threw off up to 40 times the legally allowable amount of smog-producing pollutants. This, VW said, had gone on since 2009.
There’s no telling how many lungs have been wrecked or how many lives ruined by asthma and other respiratory diseases thanks to this corporate lie, apparently concocted so that Audis and VWs would remain somewhat affordable and not lose any of their “kick.”
Adding insult to injury, taxpayers were taken to the cleaners: A Los Angeles Times analysis this week estimated that, based on the fraudulent testing, the federal government paid out as much as $51 million in green car subsidies for cars that were neither green nor clean.
Volkswagen said Tuesday the crooked software is on 11 million vehicles worldwide.
The company will pay dearly for this betrayal. Federal authorities have already told Europes biggest automaker to recall all the affected vehicles and fix emissions systems. It could face billions in fines, not to mention penalties from civil lawsuits already being filed.
But here, where the fraud has done the most damage, there should be special penance. If these allegations are true, Volkswagen has spewed six years’ worth of illegal fumes all over California and tarnished the good name of local car dealers who will now lose sales and reputations. Don’t forget, they were conned, too.
Money won’t be enough to undo the damage here. What else could Volkswagen do? How about provide fleets of subsidized electric vehicles the areas with the wor’st air in the nation – starting with Stanislaus County but including Fresno and Bakersfield? Of course, we’d want to test the cars ourselves now that we know Volkswagen cheat.