When Volkswagen engineers were challenged to enable small diesel engines to meet stringent U.S. standards for nitrogen oxide pollution, they tried, and tried – and after failing, cheated.
Now Volkswagen has agreed to one of the largest pollution penalties in history – whose hidden underside is that the engineers are still failing. Of the $15 billion Volkswagen has so far committed, $5 billion is to balance the environmental harm done by the 500,000 cheat-cars – as you might expect. The other $10 billion, $20,000 per vehicle, designated to deal with the cars, not the air, will not, however, fix the vehicles. Even given an effectively unlimited budget, engineers have not yet figured out how to make these cars emit less NOx pollution without creating an equally disastrous increase in CO2 emissions. If such a solution ever emerges, owners of these cars can get their vehicles cleaned up – but that seems unlikely. Meanwhile, owners can drive the cars for another two years, then turn them in to be scrapped. They get paid the value of the car not on the day they turn it in, but on the day when the cheating was revealed. So their incentives are to drive the car until the deadline, and then sell it back for more than its value. During these two years the pollution continues.
Given the complexities of the Clean Air Act, and the threat of litigation by the purchasers of the cars (who are not the real victims, those who breathe the pollution are), this wasteful use of $10 billion may have been forced on regulators. What the settlements make crystal clear, however, is that Volkswagen’s engineers, with an unlimited budget, could not produce diesel engines that both met U.S. NOx standards, and also retained the fuel efficiency that makes automakers (and customers) love diesels.
Auto and truck makers have made remarkable progress in cleaning up soot, hydrocarbons, sulfur, and carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines, while making those engines more efficient so that carbon pollution per passenger or ton-mile could be lowered. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollutants from gas-powered engines can also be cleaned up. Auto-makers like diesels because they squeeze more energy out of fuel – but they also make it much harder to control NOx emissions. Volkswagen did not cheat to save a few dollars – it cheated because it couldn’t make its small diesel cars meet U.S. standards. (Large diesels deal with NOx with a cumbersome, bulky urea injection system, which cannot practically be accommodated in smaller vehicles.)
This engineering limit on diesels is running into a global revolution of attitudes about air pollution. Deaths from air pollution are becoming a larger and larger catastrophe and a bigger and bigger political issue. New studies from the International Energy Agency calculated that 6.5 million people each year die from air pollution; similar studies emerge regularly from the World Health Organization. Governments and business can no longer conceal the death toll, and the public is unwilling to tolerate it. Governments are acting. The Volkswagen settlement is not the only regulatory crackdown on internal combustion engines.
The Chinese government has drastically modified its entire development strategy to respond to citizen pressure about lethal pollution. The Indian government is scrambling to deal with growing public anger. In Europe, where auto manufacturers have been massively manipulating emission testing results, and urban air quality has been degrading as a result, public outcry has led cities to begin banning significant segments of the European auto fleet. New EU pollution testing systems will make it much more difficult and expensive for auto manufacturers to “game” emission tests, leaving diesel vehicles in particular at risk.
Climate concerns and fuel efficiency standards are also making internal combustion an outmoded technology. The U.S. is moving forward with new fuel efficiency and pollution standards for diesels. Countries like India and China are passing more stringent pollution rules and eliminating fuel subsidies. U.S. auto companies are complaining – falsely – that they cannot meet the current round of fuel economy standards; they are rightly concerned that the next round of post 2021 standards, is likely to exceed the capacity of internal combustion engines to meet. This will force a rapid increase in market share for electric cars.
As shared fleet transportation companies like Uber and Lyft seize more and more market share, electric vehicles become more and more and more competitive. Vehicles which drive 100,000 miles a year recover the purchase price of an EV from savings on fuel and maintenance six times faster than a car driven only 15,000 miles.
Oil-powered transportation is becoming the most important climate threat. For both the U.S. and Europe, 2015 was the year in which climate pollution from transportation exceeded emissions from electricity. Oil, not coal, is now the biggest danger. That means that advocacy, philanthropic and political efforts that have focused on emissions from coal are going to take a closer look at oil. This closer look will increase the pressure on the internal combustion engine, which stands out as the main technology sustaining demand for oil.
2015 was the year in which climate pollution from
transportation exceeded emissions from electricity.
Oil, not coal, is now the biggest danger.
Governments all over the world – California, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany among them — are considering outright bans on the sale of internal combustion engines. (A month ago Norway almost implemented its proposed 2025 ban.) More immediately, Germany, South Korea, Sweden and China are aggressively increasing incentives for EVs. India’s car manufacturers have joined with the government to phase out internal combustion passenger vehicles by 2030.
Elon Musk has dubbed the internal combustion engine, powered as it is by thousands of small explosions inside its cylinders, a “remarkable kludge.” Automotive engineers have indeed made modern gasoline and diesel engines perform remarkably – but now the limits are being reached.
“The internal combustion engine, powered as it is
by thousands of small explosions inside its
cylinders, is a ‘remarkable kludge’.” — Elon Musk
In 1969 the California State Senate rejected – by one vote – a bill by then State Senator Anthony Beilenson, to ban the sale of cars powered by internal combustion engines. Beilenson’s bill, motivated by a conviction that California’s critical air pollution crisis could not be solved by gasoline-powered autos, has stood for almost half a century as an example of environmental over-reach.
Now technology trends, public insistence, industry investment, and government policy are all signaling that Beilenson’s dream – an end to the burden of a transportation system powered by gasoline or diesel combustion engines – is coming within grasp.
A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. He is now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development and serves as a Senior Climate Advisor to former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has served on the Boards of the California League of Conservation Voters, Public Voice, National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, Public Interest Economics Inc, and Zero Population Growth. Currently he is Convener, American Manufacturing Dialogue, Advisor, Skoll Global Threats Foundation Climate Learning Initiative, on the Advisory Board of America India Foundation and Yale Climate and Energy Institute, Board of Directors, As You Sow and Member for Track II US-India Climate Dialogue. Mr. Pope is also the author of three books: Sahib, An American Misadventure in India; Hazardous Waste In American and co-author along with Paul Rauber Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called “a splendidly fierce book.”