Volkswagen is in deep trouble. Two weeks ago, the German automaker admitted that it cheated on emissions tests in the US.
Then it admitted that the cheating software affects 11 million vehicles globally.
The VW Group set aside over $7 billion to cover the costs of correcting the fraud. CEO Martin Winterkorn stepped down. Porsche boss Matthias Müller stepped up.
Five decades worth of consumer trust, dating back to the Volkswagen Beetle of the 1960s, was shattered.
The scandal involves diesel-powered VWs and Audis. These “clean diesels” were supposed to be the diesels of the future, but they’ve now been shown, decisively, to be the diesels of the past, spewing nitrogen-oxide at levels 40 times above standards in the US when the cheating algorithms are disengaged.
Diesel engines in passenger cars are already a small part of the US market, but some observers are suggesting that they’ll now be significantly rolled back in Europe, where they are much more prevalent. For years, Europeans have suspected that diesels are polluting on the road at levels well above what they register when tested.
Outside the auto industry, a loose consensus has emerged that sees the VW scandal as a tipping point. The car of the past is environmentally toxic, driven badly by a human, contributes to traffic, and isn’t even in use much of the time. The car of the future is environmentally benign, driven by a computer, smart enough to avoid traffic, and in constant use because it’s shared rather than individually owned.
- Volkswagen Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn attends the annual news conference of Volkswagen in Berlin March 12, 2015.
VW’s cheating signals the beginning of the end of the car of the past because it reveals what a sham emissions testing is. In Europe, the car makers arrange for testing of their cars. In the US, there’s a long history of automakers coming up with ways to make cars perform one way when being tested and another on the road.
The core problem is the technology. The internal combustion engine was invented long before anyone cared about tailpipe emissions. For decades cars polluted freely, until the smog in Los Angeles became blinding, at which point car makers were compelled to reduce emissions. But it was always only going to be a partial fix. And although modern automobiles emit far less carbon or NOx than they once did, they still emit.
We’d made a sort of peace with this, but then along comes the VW scandal, which destroys that tenuous balance between knowing that emissions are still bad but trusting that the car makers are doing everything they can to mitigate them.
- Screenshot via VW
This makes people angry, and from that anger will likely come renewed pressure to do away altogether with cars that run on fossil fuels. Maybe not next year, and maybe not next decade. But sooner than we would have if VW hadn’t been caught.
In fact, there’s no silver-bullet solution to the problem of the car of the past that isn’t the car of the future. A few radical improvements to the IC engine are on the horizon, but the traditional auto industry is heavily invested in existing engine technology and isn’t really ready to make a break.
Meanwhile, disruptors like Tesla haven’t yet achieved anything near the scale needed to displace gas-powered cars.
But it is clear that we’ve reached a decision point. If governments massively revise what they expect from car makers on the emissions-testing front, it may be difficult for the industry to sustain itself. This could bring on a big shift to the car of future. It won’t happen overnight, but if we are driving around in many more electric cars – or are being driven around by electric cars – in a decade or so, we’ll look back in the Great VW Scandal of 2015 and say, “That was when it all changed.”