No, Don’t Let Volkswagen Off the Hook

VW chose to pursue diesel technology to meet emissions standards and cheated when that didn't work. Photo: Wikimedia/ by Mark Buckawicki
VW chose to pursue diesel technology to meet emissions standards and cheated when that didn’t work. Photo: Wikimedia/ by Mark Buckawicki

Because Elon Musk, a guy with lots of money and some wacky ideas, added his name to a letter begging the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to be lenient in its dealings with VW, the media responded as if the idea had merit.

The letter, signed by 45 people in the clean tech and investment industries, as well as the executive director of the Sierra Club, asks ARB not to require VW to fix the cars it has already sold [PDF]. Emissions from those cars “represent an insignificant portion of total vehicle emissions in the state,” they say.  Although maybe the people living near those emissions don’t think they’re so insignificant.

Instead of fining VW—a company that willfully and fraudulently lied about emissions from its diesel cars, because money—force it to build electric cars, say the savvy business people. Require VW to invest any money it would have been fined instead into new manufacturing plants or R&D in California. Especially batteries, say the signers. “There is an urgent need to build more battery factories to increase battery supply, and this proposal would ensure that large battery plants and related investments, with their ensuing local jobs, would be made in the U.S. by VW.”

Force a company that has just proven itself to be deceitful, fraudulent, and greedy to start building car batteries? Maybe they can just take over the old Exide site in L.A.

The media played this idea up as if it were a “big catch” in the proposal, which otherwise completely lets VW off the hook. Except that VW is already working towards building electric cars, so it doesn’t sound like much of a catch.

And the Washington Post pointed out that it’s probably illegal to stick your nose that far into a company’s business.

“The VW emissions scandal is mainly the result of physics meeting fiction,” begins the letter to the ARB. The “fiction” referred to is not the lie that VW was trying to push onto the ARB and California consumers—that their cars were meeting regulations on emissions. No, the “fiction” is the impossibility of getting high performance and low emissions at the same time.

The regulations were just unreasonable! So, they write, “unsurprisingly. . . VW had to cheat to meet current European and U.S. standards.”

Let’s hope Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols stopped reading right there, or at least took a breath before continuing. Anyone who believes that a company “had to cheat” has a broken moral compass. Let’s see—what else could VW have done instead of cheating? Oh, maybe, let’s see…. sacrificed a bit of performance? Started a more effective dialogue with regulators? Given up a bit of market share? Well, no, of course not. Under the circumstances, VW “had to cheat.”

Ion Yadigaroglu, an investor and one of the organizers of the letter, told Vice magazine the letter signers wanted to get regulators “to focus on being creative and not on punishment, and to look at what incredible gains could be made from what is a bad situation.” In his view, this proposal doesn’t let VW off the hook, but it gets California “a much greater bang for the buck.”

Well, some of California, maybe.

A different perspective comes from a group of advocates from organizations including the American Lung Association, Coalition for Clean Air, Greenlining Institute, another Sierra Club representative, and others [PDF]. They wrote a response to the ARB, pointing out that the proposal ignores health impacts from those unexpected diesel emissions, especially among vulnerable communities near roadways. The proposal also ignores those who were directly defrauded by VW when they bought vehicles they thought were cleaner than ones from VW’s competitors. It ignores that areas with the worst air quality tend to be low-income communities where few can afford electric cars.

And, they point out, the proposed enforcement would not only let VW off the hook for “one of the most egregious examples of corporate and environmental fraud in history,” it would actually expedite VW’s long term corporate strategy.

So: no, no, no, no, and no!

“VW’s punishment for knowingly violating California’s air pollution regulations should fit the crime and ensure that any resulting reparations are directed towards delivering real solutions that will bring cleaner air and cleaner transportation,” especially to those communities most affected and most in need of solutions, as the response has it.

Let’s get real here.

  • neroden

    Really, given that VW has been a criminal conspiracy, with multiple frauds at all levels, it should just be shut down.

    We don’t ask the government to go easy on the mob.

  • keenplanner

    Since the cars currently don’t meet standards for PM emissions, they have no business on the road. They need to fix all the cars, and soon. Or buy them back by giving the owners credit on a new car equal to what they paid for their fradulently evaluated vehicles. Seems simple to me.

  • farazs

    VW needs to either take those cars off the road or fix them to comply with regulations. There should be NO compromise on this point. I don’t see how the quantity of value of other lawsuits has any bearing on this.

    Its about restitution, not punishment!

  • Manjino

    You make some valid points. But also consider this. VW is facing dozens of lawsuits from various entities and countries amounting to many billions of dollars. Isn’t that enough punishment already? Besides, what good use will the government make of the monetary gain from the fine? Will it use it to assist in promoting green technologies perhaps or scander it like governments are very proficient at doing.

    There’s no easy answer to this. The ultimate answer I think is the solution that offers the greatest benefit to society as a whole without adding to what is already a very complex and difficult situation for all directly and indirectly impacted by this.

  • Walter Crunch

    CARB wants money. Plain and simple. Nothing will happen that will help the people. Is the VW worse than the average F350 on the road? Probably not. Lots of carping about little. Extract the dollars CARB wants and move on. Put your press release out you are saving the world. Nothing more entertaining than cubicle junkies getting all rallied up.

  • artnouveau

    Indeed! Great analysis!

    I think what VW should do is to provide every owner of an affected VW, Audi, Porsche automobile (in exchange for the violating vehicles) a loaner vehicle that meets emissions specifications until such time that a fix can be instituted to correct the diesel-emissions deficiency. When a fix is found and instituted on affected cars, then and only then should the automaker get its loaners back. If a fix has already been found, then let the recall effort begin!! Pronto!!

    Should the California Air Resources Board accept the conditions outlined in the “appeal” letter, what guarantee is there that consumers would even opt to purchase electric vehicles in any great numbers?

    As a result of the concealment, where oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions are concerned, affected motor vehicles were found to pollute the air from between 9 and 40 times legal limits depending on model.

    Finally, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter how many vehicles in California are affected, whether it is one or 1,000. It is the principle of the thing. If my suggestion above is impractical and instituting a repair cannot be found, the automaker should bend over backwards to resolve this issue, even if that means having to exchange the vehicles (with no charge to the consumer) or buy back the affected vehicles paying each and every owner the full value of what the car cost when purchased.

    The automaker should not be let off the hook – period.

  • SFnative74

    In order to prevent any company from even considering something so egregious and amoral as VW’s devious actions, there needs to be some substantive punitive damages included. Letting them off the hook in anyway is the complete opposite of the direction we should be taking.

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