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New book: the Dieselgate scandal was not an isolated incident, was not a secret, and is not over

The “Dieselgate scandal,” or as we like to call it, the “dirty diesel debacle,” was a catalytic event (pun intended). It led to some major changes at Volkswagen, and shook up the European auto market. However, only time will tell how much of this change will prove to be permanent.

The Volkswagen Group has announced ambitious plans to produce numerous new EVs, and even to eventually phase out ICEs, but it remains to be seen how it will follow through. On the other hand, in the US, VW has created Electrify America, a nationwide charging network that is already having a major positive impact on the EVSE scene.

In Europe, where diesels accounted for more than half of all passenger car sales at the time the scandal broke, sales have plummeted, and several cities have announced plans for local diesel bans. However the German automakers are quietly pushing ahead with diesel tech, and seem to be hoping for a return to smoky business as usual. (To cite one example of the image makeover that’s under way, a publicity handout for the recent Geneva auto show listed the idea that “diesel is dead” as the auto industry’s “Myth #1.”)

So, while the tawdry tale of devious deeds and dirty diesels has already been covered at length, it’s by no means old news. Furthermore, it’s a cracking good story, which you can read in a new book, “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution,” by Beth Gardiner (a lengthy excerpt from the UK edition recently appeared in The Guardian).

In a chapter on the Diesel Disaster, Ms. Gardiner does some myth-busting of her own. First, the evasion of air pollution standards was not the work of bad apples, and it was not confined to the Volkswagen Group. As Der Spiegel put it, it was “the result of secret agreements within the entire German automobile industry.”

“In Germany, testers found all but three of 53 models exceeded NOx limits, the worst by a factor of 18,” Gardiner writes. “In London, the testing firm Emissions Analytics found 97% of more than 250 diesel models were in violation; a quarter produced NOx at six times the limit.”

Second, European regulators shouldn’t have been “shocked, shocked” to learn about what was going on. Gardiner spoke with an official at Germany’s federal environment agency, who told her his department had been measuring emissions many times higher than allowed for years. German regulators, and anyone who read their public reports, knew perfectly well that automakers were breaking the rules.

Ironically, it fell to an American environmental group to break the story wide open. John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) commissioned an examination of pollution from diesel cars in 2013. When he found that a Volkswagen Jetta was producing Nitrogen oxide pollution at 15 times the allowed limit, at first he wondered if it might be malfunctioning. However, the automotive expert quickly figured out that there had to be a “defeat device,” deliberately designed to evade the rules.

German and his colleagues published their work in May 2014, and forwarded the findings to the US EPA and California’s Air Resources Board (CARB). Months later, after California regulators ran more tests, the EPA threatened to withhold certification from VW. Only then did the company come clean.

One interesting and highly ironic thing that Gardiner points out: although US environmental policies lag behind those of Europe in many areas (and are now rapidly moving in the wrong direction), air quality is “a glaring exception.” The EPA had built up tremendous legal and technical expertise before its recent evisceration. In contrast, “European air quality regulators don’t have the muscle or the resources their US counterparts have long possessed,” Gardiner writes. “The national enforcement agencies are generally understaffed, poorly funded and lacking in technical expertise. The problem is the system itself, which is riddled with weakness and ripe for abuse. Politicians have begun, post-Dieselgate, to tighten it, but it remains a system designed under the gaze – and the lobbying pressure – of a powerful industry.”

Gardiner calls the scandal “a failure of innovation – yet another symptom of carmakers’ desire to stick with what they know, with the cars that reliably deliver profits.” This “stick to the tried-and-true” mentality explains why European automakers tried to sidestep the emissions issue by pushing diesels, rather than developing hybrids.

“Today, glimmers of a different future are in sight, as electric cars begin moving from niche to mainstream,” Gardiner writes. “There are challenges, to be sure: the need for better batteries, more charging points and enough power to keep cars supplied. But those are obstacles that can be overcome and the technology is advancing quickly.”

However, as others have, Gardiner cautions that even EVs powered by renewable energy “will be unsustainable if car ownership keeps increasing.”

“If developing nations such as India and China follow the path we have taken, the world could go from about 1 billion cars today to more than 3 billion by 2050. What is really needed is not just a slowing of that growth, but fewer cars altogether, of any sort. It is a goal that is reachable if we reorganise the places we live to be denser, more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, with public transportation – and newer options such as car-sharing – that are convenient and affordable.”

“Still, cleaning up the vehicles we do drive is crucial. As in the past, the best hope comes from companies willing to put in the money and brainpower needed to do it.”

In other chapters, Gardiner writes about air pollution crises in India, Poland and the San Joaquin Valley, and discusses the promising work of Tesla in California and the accelerating revolution in China.


Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution

by Beth Gardiner

Publisher: University of Chicago Press (April 8, 2019)

312 pages



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