The VW ‘Scandal’

This could kill VW – until recently (until last week) the world’s largest car company.

But unlike say the exploding Pinto fiasco this is not a story about defective cars. It is a story about defective public policy.

None of the VW cars now in the crosshairs are unreliable, dangerous or shoddily built. They were simply programmed to give their owners best-case fuel economy and performance. Software embedded within each vehicle’s computer – which monitors and controls the operation of the engine – would furtively adjust those parameters slightly to sneak by emissions tests when the vehicle was plugged in for testing. But once out on the road, the calibrations would revert to optimal – for mileage and performance.

Now, the hysterical media accounts of the above make it seem that the alteration via code of the vehicles’ exhaust emissions was anything but slight. Shrill cries of up to “40 times” the “allowable maximum” echo across the land.

Well, true.

But, misleading.   

Because not defined – put in context.

What is the “allowable maximum”?

It is a very small number.

Less than 1 percent of the total volume of the car’s exhaust. We are talking fractions of percentages here. Which is why talk of “40 percent” is so misleading and, frankly, deliberately dishonest.

Left out of context, the figure sounds alarming. As in 40 percent of 100 percent.

As opposed to 40 percent of the remaining unscrubbed  1-3 percent or .05 percent  or whatever it is (depending on the specific “harmful” byproduct being belabored).

The truth – explained rarely, for reasons that will become obvious – is that the emissions of new cars (and recent-vintage cars) have been so thoroughly cleaned up they hardly exist at all. Catalytic converters (and especially “three way” catalytic converters with oxygen sensors) and fuel injection alone eliminated about two-thirds of the objectionable effluvia from the exhaust stream – and they’ve been around since the 1980s. Most of the remaining third was dealt with during the ’90s, via more precise forms of fuel delivery (port fuel injection replaced throttle body fuel injection) and more sophisticated engine computers capable of real-time monitoring and adjustment of parameters, and of alerting the vehicle’s owner to the need for a check (OBD II).

Since the late ’90s/early 2000s, the industry has been chasing diminishing returns. The remaining 3 percent or so of the exhaust stream that’s not been “controlled.”

You may begin to see the problem here.

Internal combustion is always going to produce some emissions. The engineers have picked the low hanging (and mid-hanging) fruit. But the EPA insists on what amounts to a zero emissions internal combustion engine.

Which, of course, is impossible.

Which may be just the point.

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