The cheating heart of Volkswagen’s software: quick thoughts

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the recent discovery, by U.S. regulators, that Volkswagen’s diesel engine-management software cheats: it detects when a test is being conducted and limits emissions during the test to meet the standards, but it doesn’t do so the rest of the time. Why would VW do this? I haven’t read any details. Presumably the company reckoned that meeting the standards all the time would noticeably degrade the engine’s performance. This seems weird—the wrong way to think small. Diesel is a less expensive fuel than gasoline, and it gets more miles per gallon, but VW engineers would have to be employing a crude and clumsy means of emissions control for it to make an appreciable difference in fuel economy. Why don’t they just do their job right? (Which might also be said about another case recently in the news.)

Regardless, some people have gotten all upset over this. I saw a tweet yesterday reporting, I think, that the VW cheat put an extra million tons of pollutant into the air every year. That may sound like a lot, but if I remember correctly the scale of the numbers for automobile emissions, that would amount to very little. Likewise, someone else said we should reckon the number of people sickened or killed by this. Again, I’d think the difference would be tiny. If we want to talk about a single step that’d make an appreciable difference in combustion emissions—which is not really the way to go about warding off climate change—it’d probably do more good for the U.S. to raise its petrol tax to something like the level in Europe, or to institute some kind of overall carbon tax. For me, given what little I know so far, the reason to care about VW’s behavior is not the actual consequences but the principle of the thing: we’ve been deceived.

Addendum, 10:15 AM: My skepticism may be misplaced in this case. The Economist, in a brief report included in this morning’s Espresso, adopted a distinctly gloomy attitude; read it here.

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2 thoughts on “The cheating heart of Volkswagen’s software: quick thoughts

  1. Right on. Although it’s unlikely that everyone is as up-to-date as you are on these statistics, I do suspect that a lot of the people who are fixated on the emissions rather than on the basic problem—corporations’ us-against-the-world lying and profiteering—are those whose concern about pollution, GMOs, pesticides, and so forth is chiefly a matter of self-interest. We are all guilty of this “Oh, my, think of all the carbons I’ve been inhaling that I didn’t need to,” but we should be aware that those personal concerns, while understandable, are insufficient when it comes to really fighting for real change. Too easy for the well-off and enlightened to avoid the poisons themselves ( for a while) by living in environmentally desirable areas, in green buildings, eating only organic foods—in other words, by becoming self-concerned survivalists on the other side of the political fence from the right-wing apocalyptic crazies who protect themselves with arms caches and barbed wire instead of 100 SPF sunscreen and the EatSafe hotline.

    OK, I’ve been unpleasant enough to everyone I know who acts just like me, so, over n out!

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Jane. As I’ve read more on this story, I’ve discovered there may be more reason for concern, and I understand the engineering situation slightly better. But my basic feeling is still “Show me the numbers.” Eleven million vehicles sold by the Volkswagen corporation over the last six years may all have been emitting more nitrogen oxides than they were supposed to—as much as 40 times more. What’s the difference between the amount we expected and the amount we got? How do we reckon the effects of that? What proportion of total vehicle sales during that time do those 11 million represent? The violation of trust is still the easiest thing to see clearly.

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