Volkswagen installed a ‘defeat device’ on 11 million of its cars that, when tested for emissions standards, shows the cars emitting normal pollution levels. Yet it is actually decreasing the engine’s power during testing, and the nitrogen oxide pollutants it releases on the road are 40 times what the U.S. allows legally. This is because they couldn’t find a solution to the EPA’s tightening of emissions standards in 2004, so they chose to cheat instead. The result is that VW is recalling these millions of cars, their reputation is damaged, and they are losing revenue (Gates, 2016). Volkswagen took advantage of the United States’ 21st century automobility culture to produce environmentally destructive cars which has now made fuel alternatives and efficiency a priority.
VW cheated, according to Chairman Pötsch, because they couldn’t find a technical solution within the company’s ‘time frame and budget’ to build diesel engines that would meet U.S. emissions standards. 2004 EPA’s tightening of emissions standards from 1.25 to .07 grams of nitrous oxide per mile was a huge challenge to European manufacturers, whose own country’s standards were not as strict. Affected VWs in the U.S. could emit between 10,392 and 41,571 tons of nitrogen oxides yearly, which for the entire affected fleet means a potential 1 million tons of nitrogen oxide per year. Nitrogen oxides produce photochemical smog, acid rain, nitrate particulates, and also destroy the stratospheric ozone layer. They disturb chemical balance of nutrients in bodies of water, causing eutrophication. In response, VW has made a plan for its future (Strategy 2025) in which it will make 30 new electric vehicle models across VW, Audi, Porsche, and other affiliated brands by 2025. Electric vehicle sales will be between 2-3 million units by 2025, which is 20%-25% of total unit sales at that time. CEO Müller says VW will “establish a corporate culture that is open, value-driven and rooted in integrity”.
Many major new outlets have already covered this topic extensively. Earth Talk’s website is a rich source for finding information about the environmental costs of nitrogen oxides. Besides the ones mentioned previously, nitrous oxides cause serious respiratory problems and can lead to death in some cases. The BBC has posted several high-quality articles about the topic at large, and give good analyses of why and how the problem came about. VW claims that this decision wasn’t a corporate one, yet the defeat devices cannot be ignored throughout the whole process of manufacturing unless someone with authority was covering it up. The EPA’s own website has detailed information regarding nitrogen oxide and how much is allowed, as well as other car-related pollutants. It is not only ethically troublesome, but morally, environmentally, and professionally disturbing as well.
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Student Author: Nathan Budgor, Environmental Studies major at The University of Vermont
Faculty Evaluator: Dr. Rob Williams