Friday, September 25, 2015

VW: Das-eption and the path to Redemption

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned on Wednesday.

While this blog's primary focus is the BMW i3, I occasionally sprinkle in some featured EV products and discuss topics not necessarily i3-centric, but are instead just general electric vehicle information. In light of the recent revelations that Volkswagen has been deliberately cheating on emissions testing for many years now, I wrote the following article for Green Car Reports.

So far, no other automaker has been caught as VW has - with proof that they purposely installed a "defeat device" on the vehicles so the cars would curb their emissions only during actual emission testing. However it's fair game to speculate if other OEMs may also be exposed as cheaters now that the EPA knows what they have to look for, and how to expose it. It will certainly be interesting to watch this all unfold.

In any event, Volkswagen is going to face huge fines for intentionally violating Federal emission standards and I wanted to offer my thoughts on how I believe some of that money should be used. If we don't use at least a portion of that money to help reverse the damage done by these heavily polluting "clean diesels", I believe we will have missed a great opportunity to improve the quality of air we all breathe.

 How VW Can Atone For Diesel Deception: Electric-Car Advocate's Thoughts

The full impact of Volkswagen's diesel-emission cheating scandal has yet to be realized, but what it has apparently already admitted to doing could result in the largest civil fine ever levied by the Federal government on an automaker. And that's just the beginning.

Besides paying civil penalties, and coping with a spate of criminal actions, and class-action lawsuits, and investigations by multiple levels of government, VW also needs to deal with the 482,000 cars it sold--plus more in limbo at dealers--that clearly do not comply with emission laws.

In real-world use, these vehicles emit 10 to 35 times the allowable legal limit of certain pollutants, so they're not just slightly out of compliance. They will need to be modified to comply, or VW will have to buy them back. And if owners don't like the modified cars, they'll likely have to buy those cars back too.
After all that, VW has to figure out how to regain the trust of the public.

There are lots of aspects to this debacle, and all will undoubtedly be discussed ad nauseam over the coming weeks. But the aspect I find most interesting is how Volkswagen can best right the wrongs it has done. How does paying fines, settling lawsuits, and bringing highly-polluting vehicles into compliance really undo the damage done? It doesn't. All it does is punish Volkswagen. And I believe the public deserves more.

Make no mistake: If VW is guilty as charged, it absolutely deserves to be punished--and severely.
It turns out they aren't as clean as we were told - not nearly, actually.
But I hope the Justice Department also considers what can be done to offset the damage to air quality created by the offending so-called "clean diesels." And I hope VW, separately, does the same. We've seen penalty estimates as high as $18 billion dollars (the maximum allowed of $37,500 per vehicle for intentionally violating the Clean Air Act. I doubt the actual penalty will be anywhere close to that, but it will likely be in the billions. I think it's not unreasonable to expect the fine to be somewhere around $2.5 billion, or about $5,000 per non-compliant vehicle sold.

Why not use a portion of that civil fine to invest in a nationwide DC Fast Charge network for electric vehicles?

If just half of a $2.5 billion fine were dedicated to this purpose, we could blanket the majority of Interstate highways and major high-traffic corridors with DC fast chargers that would make switching from gasoline and diesel cars to zero-emission electric vehicles a much easier decision for many buyers. Here's why I believe that is what should be done. Helping to advance the proliferation of cleaner electric vehicles would, over time, more than reverse the emissions damage that has been done, and further improve the quality of air we breathe, instead of just punishing the offender. And shouldn't that really be the goal here?

A second thought: As well as using the fine to build out a national DC fast-charging network, how about Volkswagen getting out in front of this crisis itself and telling us how it will do its part to help clean the air it polluted?

BMW, Volkswagen and ChargePoint teamed up to create "Express Charging Corridors" on the East and West coasts. While it's a good start, much more fast charge infrastructure is needed to allow the average electric car of today to be a viable choice for long distance driving.
Rather than just declaring that it will be a leader in electric mobility, as the company has done before, show us the proof that it's serious about how it plans to expand its zero-emission vehicle offerings? VW Group could combine that with a generous investment in public charging infrastructure, on a much greater scale than last December's partnership with BMW and ChargePoint to install approximately 100 DC fast chargers.

That program in just now starting to get under way, but it's really only the beginning of what's needed. VW should commit to expanding it to 400 or 500 stations, including high-volume corridors not only on the East and West coasts but across the country--essentially following the Tesla Supercharger road map.
Tesla North American Supercharger map.
Yet another idea to consider: Give the owners of the affected vehicles the option to replace their car with a new electric Volkswagen e-Golf. Some current Volkswagen TDI diesel owners have said they now feel guilty for having driven their diesel for the past few years, with a main reason for their purchase having been both fuel economy and because it was a "clean" diesel.

Offering those owners the option to return the polluting car for a much cleaner Volkswagen could demonstrate that VW understands and is concerned with its customers' desire to drive clean cars. Many owners won't take advantage of such an offer--diesel partisans can be just as committed to their technology as electric-car advocates--but the offer would send a powerful signal about the company's intent. I believe these are the sort of things Volkswagen must consider if it wants to convince the public it is serious about making proper restitution for this egregious deception.
How about offering eGolfs to the customers that don't want their dirty diesel anymore?
There are plenty of ways to make some good come out of this shameful episode. No matter how you slice it, it will be very painful for Volkswagen AG. How well or poorly the company manages this crisis will  have a lingering effect for years to come, even decades.

It appears VW intentionally deceived both the American consumer and the U.S. government, and put public health at risk, by knowingly planning and executing a fraud. To me, and I think to many others, that's much worse than a carmaker trying to delay or prevent a vehicle recall.

But Americans are forgiving people, and sin followed by redemption is a part of our national myth. As long as we believe the offender is genuinely remorseful for what it did, and is taking steps to prove it hase learned from the offense, recovery is possible--perhaps even lauded and held up as a shining example of redemption.

Now that we've found out the real truth in German engineering, the ball has moved into VW's court to decide on what it can do to begin to offset the damage it has done to itself, its customers, and the environment.
Let's hope Volkswagen is smart enough to make the right decisions.

*Edit: BMW released a statement regarding the recent discussion of diesel engines and emission compliance. You can read it HERE.


  1. I agree that Volkswagen should make amends for its crimes, but I'm not holding my breath expecting they will channel their restitution into electric mobility. I do think that making it easy for their diesel owners to switch to an e-Golf would be a nice gesture, but I can't see them doing that without also offering to put their erstwhile diesel customers into one of their gasoline cars.

    As far as the U.S. government investing the recovered large fines into electric charging stations, I think that's very unlikely and also not the best way to encourage the use of electric cars. We should play to the many strengths of EVs, and not play into the agendas of the EV detractors. Long range driving is not something EVs are well suited to, although you can drive an EV on long trips if you like the challenge (or have a Tesla). It's the EV detractors who constantly decry EV's range limitation; we shouldn't allow ourselves to be sucked into that criticism, to be defensive and apologetic. Yes, EVs have a limited range, we should just admit, but so what? American's average daily drive is 29 miles, and 80% of Americans drive less that 40 miles per day.

    100-mile EVs work great for them, and the vast majority of EV owners charge at home overnight. I've read that many public charging stations are used very infrequently. Calling for big networks of public charging stations (like our big network of gas stations), reinforces traditionalists' criticisms that EVs aren't ready for prime time, because they don't perform like ICE cars. Thank goodness!

    I was dismayed when I read that the e-Golf had automatic transmission creep programmed in (like ICE cars), and again when I read that the regenerative/magnetic braking was kept relatively weak because conventional car drivers were used to weak ICE engine drag. I am dismayed by the constant calls for EVs to have longer ICE-like range (200-300 miles). EVs are different than conventional cars. Better!

    At some point in the future, batteries will be light and cheap enough to make longer range practical, but again, for most people 100-miles of range will be plenty, and they can charge at home. For the 20% of drivers who want some EV-love and need more than that, there are PHEVs, Teslas, and pricey Tesla imitators. Long range is not a band wagon EV makers should all be hopping on.

    If the government wants to do something with VW fine money that would significantly encourage EV purchases, they should convert the $7500 tax credit to a point-of-sale rebate. That would allow retirees and others who do not pay enough in taxes to benefit from a tax credit (but who can afford an EV), to take advantage of that subsidy. It would remove a perhaps-daunting tax filing step, and EV purchasers would not have to shell out the extra $7500 at the time of purchase, and then wait for up to a year to recoup it. That's a real disincentive to buying an EV. Why would you buy an EV if it costs you $7500 more than other people pay for the same car?

    In any case, and back to Volkswagen, many of the new management at Volkswagen AG (Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi) are big EV proponents (including some important BMW i defectors), and I expect to see a significant swing to electric from VW in the next five years.

  2. I may offer a new motto to VW instead of "Das Auto: _Der BetrĂ¼ger_

    PS: meaning _Trickster_ in English...

  3. Let us not assume that either government or large companies will do the rational thing. VW is in for a long haul and will be, should be held to account for a variety of legitimate reasons and for other reasons that profit special-interests, reasons clear only to odd ball groups, or to persons who excel at spinning webs to encompass all ills. It will not commit to a solution, although it will talk about solutions--good pr--until it deals with its legal issues that will undoubtedly be adjudicated. To preempt the outcome of regulators and courts is to commit itself to vast sums of money that it will do its best to avoid or minimize. In short, we are looking at the long road ahead--no short term trips. Fasten your seat belts and prepare to watch the long race.

  4. I was lucky to have a colleague that worked with ICCT - the NGO that sponsored the research - warn me about the findings. It was that warning that prompted me to trade in my VW Golf TDI for a BMW i3 REX. I'm thrilled with the i3 and very thankful to have made this choice sooner; not sure what a TDI owner's experience attempting a trade-in now would be.

    Now's a great moment for EV owners to become evangelists to their environmentally conscious friends who may be harboring a diesel in their garage.

    And let me say, I agree that a charging station network probably isn't the best way to support EV adoption. We need to get more everyday commuters exposed to the benefits of an EV; as Chris said, I commute about 50 miles a day, and the convenience of charging the i3 overnight is unrivaled.