15A054 Did VW Fib? by Jim Davies, 10/3/2015    


Government people lie to us so routinely, and with such appalling consequences, that it's noteworthy indeed when a big fib is told by someone else - it's a Man Bites Dog story. And Volkswagen has 'fessed up to deceiving the EPA tests regarding NOx emissions by some of its diesel engines.

It's a bit like falsifying a tax return. The whole, humongous income-tax scam relies upon earners of "income" (which the law totally fails to define) telling the truth. Sometimes, some 1040 filers forget to declare all they received (little surprise, since nobody can know what "income" means) and/or record a deduction that they cannot prove. Such fibs are common practice. They are much to be commended; real people retain more of what is theirs, while government steals less than it would like. Such lies are white.

Volkswagen's lie may have been bigger. Someone in the firm designed software in the engine control module that would detect when the car was on a test bed, and fool the emission sniffers. Then when the car is under its owner's control, it reverts to helping the engine deliver the performance and economy he purchased. Only bureaucrats lose. Yay!

Such deliberate defiance of government commands is as commendable as it is rare, and it's particularly good to see it done by a German company. German industry has taken a great deal of stick in the past half century, for co-operating with earlier governments there; Krupps for making fortunes out of munitions for its war machines, I G Farben for accepting unusually high levels of government orders for the rat poison, Zyklon-B. And yes, Volkswagen itself was sponsored and subsidized at first by Hitler's government to produce an inexpensive "people's car"; it wound up producing Jeep-like vehicles for his army. I've no idea whether the EPA-busting software design was the brainchild of a libertarian, but whoever it was deserves three cheers.

There is no question of poisoning the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxide gases are harmful when concentrated, but as emissions from small high-performance diesels they come nowhere close to that condition. European governments, with the world's hardest working writers of laws and regulations, never bothered to restrict NOx emissions even though that Continent has about 5 times more people than the US to share every cubic mile of air. Rather, this American law has vested-interests written all over it; the protectionist interests of car makers here, which are 15 or 20 years behind VW in the development of high-performance diesels, those of UAW, whose membership would fall further if such motors captured more of the US car market, and perhaps those of oil refiners, whose capital is sunk into plant designed to produce lighter octanes than diesel fuel.

So they get government to exclude that foreign competition by making the engines do something they cannot yet do, and about which actual customers care little or nothing. Then VW defeats them with software. Beautiful!

My first encounter with such motors came several years ago in Northern Europe, when a young friend drove his small Audi car up a steep and winding hill with three adult passengers. It wasn't the latest model, but it did have a VW-made turbo diesel under the hood. The ride was fantastic! Exhilarating, as if the car had been a 2-person Porsche 911. Then more recently, I encountered a Volvo V70 wagon there, powered by diesel; the performance was fine and it delivered an overall 35 mpg. For such a heavy car, that's remarkable.

Now, did VW actually lie? The firm has admitted to having deliberately deceived the EPA, but that's different. They submitted cars to the EPA for testing, to certify them for US roads, and EPA testers certified them as suitable, law-abiding vehicles. Where's the fib?

The firm promoted the cars, in part, as meeting or exceeding EPA standards; and they did. Every time a State government had one inspected to those standards, it passed. So was any false statement uttered? Maybe not!

If Volkswagen had promoted their engines with something like "they are so green, they will never emit nitrogen oxide gases above permitted levels during normal driving" then that would have been mendacious - for, indeed, they do so emit. If some car owners were influenced to buy by such a lie, I'd say they were due their money back. Out of the 482,000 bought in the US, how many are bothered by that? Five percent, maybe. Not too heavy a loss. And that applies only if VW did, in fact, use such a form of words.

How about what VW said to the Feds? - perhaps the lawyers will turn up a smoking gun, but my guess is that they merely asked for certification: "Does this model pass your tests?" Then, after receipt of an affirmative answer, VW went ahead and took advantage of the subsidies the FedGov offered, at your expense and mine. Was that acceptance some kind of lie? In my book it comes closer, but still not really. They just took government at its word, and would have attracted suspicion had they declined the offer.

I'd already placed Volkswagen on my short list for any future car buy, and this news of the firm standing up to government moves it up to #1 - provided they can find a way to keep the Turbo Diesel Injection models on US roads. I don't want a dumbed-down engine. But suppose they can't - suppose the FedGov orders all VW TDI cars off the road? In response, VW might close its US subsidiary and lay off all its workers... who do vote. The result might be worse for the EPA than for the car maker.

In the coming zero government society, none of this absurdity will be present. Car makers will try to deliver what customers want, and if they fail to advertise products accurately the customers will take business elsewhere. No third party parasite will exist to interfere.


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