Volkswagen has just perpetrated on the United States and possibly the world an act of criminality that is stunning for its scale, depravity, and lack of a payoff. The company — the whole company, not just a few proverbial bad apples — has been caught designing its diesel cars (The Jetta, Passat and the BMW X5) to control their emissions when being tested, but to remove those controls when being driven normally. As a result, for six years about half a million diesel autos have been emitting 40 times the nitrous oxide, a smog precursor, allowed by law. The cars that did this were marketed as “clean diesels.”
In an article headlined “Pure Evil, VW Edition,” a website called Reality Based Community explained what the company did:
Code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal – that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty – operations. That meant emitting about 40x the permitted -and advertised – level of nitrous oxide, which makes smog.
A couple of clean-air advocacy groups, struck by some discrepancies in European emissions testing on the vehicles, decided to do some rigorous tests in the United States, whose emissions controls are tougher than Europe’s. They engaged a West Virginia University research center that had developed a device for testing emissions while driving, not on a stationary emissions tester.
When the EPA was presented with the astonishing results, it immediately (in May of last year) opened an investigation. VW responded by announcing that it had found the problem; that it was devising a software patch; and was recalling half a million cars to “fix” them. Problem was, tests of the fixed cars yielded the same elevated emissions (although they easily passed the standard emissions tests).
VW suggested more tinkering. It was then that regulators observed that, lacking an actual fix, Volkswagen’s diesel cars would not be certified for sale in the United States in 2016.
Ouch. VW was desperate to revive its flagging US sales, and had chosen to do so by emphasizing its “clean diesel” cars rather than, say, hybrid or electric vehicles. Faced with losing the ability to sell any diesels in American, VW promptly admitted to the entire, six-years-long scam. The stock market immediately vaporized nearly one-quarter of VW’s share value (proving yet again that it is possible to make a hyena gag). The company is facing fines that will amount to billions of dollars, and the possibility of criminal prosecution of executives.
Even if we’ve become jaded by the callous venality of Big Business, one aspect of this case, in addition to its scale, is mind boggling: VW impaired the health of millions of people, probably contributing to the premature death of some of them, in a criminal conspiracy involving hundreds, maybe thousands of their employees for no apparent measurable return. The only benefit of turning off all emissions controls was a slightly peppier acceleration. For this they risked their company? And going to jail?
It is well,” wrote Scott Peck, “that evil is so stupid.” Maybe so, but when evil is industrial sized, too big to jail, its stupidity makes it even more dangerous. Just when you congratulate yourself that it’s the dinosaurs that are going extinct, not you, one of them falls on you.