Volkswagen’s Damage Deeper Than It Appears

Lindsey Sagasta, Class of 2016

In mid-September, Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests on 11 million of its diesel cars. Models such as the Volkswagen Passat, Jetta, Golf and Beetle, and cousin cars like the Audi A3 were fit with special devices. These devices are able to detect standard nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions testing and switch the car into a “low-emissions mode” to pass. When the testing is finished, the low-emissions mode is turned off, and the cars go back to releasing 40 times the pollutants allowed by the law. 

A story of a corporation pursuing profits over the environment is not new, but Volkswagen is not a regular sized corporation–their cars account for one out of ten passenger vehicles sold in the world. Furthermore, this stunt required false advertising to millions of customers across the globe, and it undid the considerable work done in the past decades for the environment, including the lowered emissions targets and mitigation of the effects that higher emissions have on human health and climate change. 

An outstanding one million tons of air pollution may have been added to the atmosphere annually due to the Volkswagen deception. How much is that?  Roughly the same as the U.K.’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture. 

“The 482,000 non-compliant U.S. vehicles would have released between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of NOx annually at an average U.S. mileage, rather than the 1,039 tonnes the EPA standards would imply.  Scaled to the 11m global vehicles, that would mean up to 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions annually. Western Europe’s biggest power station, Drax in the U.K., emits 39,000 tonnes of NOx each year,” according to an analysis in The Guardian.  

What does this mean for human health? Currently, air pollution containing nitrogen oxide emissions can be contributed to three million or more premature deaths a year, and diesel engines are a big part of the problem. According to a Fusion article, if, conceptually, 4,000 premature deaths could be avoided in a 20-year period in California by removing the 220,000 tons of NOx from off-road diesel vehicle emissions, then with the one million tons of NOx added unrecorded to the atmosphere annually; Volkswagen could be directly accounted for the premature deaths of an even larger amount of people. 

So, what was Volkswagen doing with the extra profits? They were running expensive ad campaigns to promote the eco-friendliness of their vehicles. Some have been taken down, but some can still be found online. 

“This ain’t your daddy’s diesel. Stinky, smoky and sluggish. Those old diesel realities no longer apply. Enter TDI Clean Diesel. Ultra-low-sulfur fuel, direct injection technology, and extreme efficiency. We’ve ushered in a new era of diesel,” one advertisment claims. 

This revelation of disgusting misconduct has lead the CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winkerton, to resign. The stock price has also been reduced by 33 percent. Approximately $7.3 billion has already been set aside to cover costs associated with the scandal, but it doesn’t seem like this will be the total payout. There could be billions more due in fines and penalties to customers and regulators, and, if the public responds as they should, profits will be greatly reduced as consumer demand decreases drastically.