Volkswagen: Why dissing the diesel fraud is just a bit hypocritical

Volkswagen has admitted falsifying emissions data.Reuters

They used to be marketed with the slogan, "You're missing a lot when you own a Volkswagen". Fewer parts, you see; less to go wrong.

It turns out that if you live in the US, you're also missing some crucial data about exactly how much poison your diesel engine is pumping out into the atmosphere.

The car giant has admitted falsifying data using a 'defeat device', a clever software trick that recognises when nitric oxide and dioxide emissions are being tested and reduces them accordingly. In normal running they can be up to 35 times higher.

So far the scandal is confined to the US, with authorities in Europe rushing to say that the regime is completely different here. However, according to campaign group Transport & Environment, it's probably happening in Europe too and other manufacturers might be doing the same thing.

Volkswagen is already paying the penalty for its misdeeds, with billions wiped off its share value, half a million vehicles recalled and multi-billion dollar fines in prospect, as well as criminal charges for those responsible.

Understandably, the focus is all on the wicked manufacturers. Fair enough: it's hard not to feel outraged at such naked dishonesty in the pursuit of profit. Let's lock 'em up and throw the key away. Their arrogance and greed match anything we've seen in the world of banking and high finance.

What's worse, we think – and this adds a pleasant gloss of indisputable righteousness to our moral outrage – is that these people are actually dangerous. They're deliberately putting a product out there that's dangerous to human health, and they know it. If they'd conspired to make cars with dodgy airbags or seatbelts it couldn't be worse.

And that, too, is fair enough. This is the unacceptable face of capitalism, if ever there was one. For this to have happened there has to have been a thread of corruption running through VW from top to bottom. Someone authorised this, someone developed it, someone made it and someone installed it. Lots of people knew what was happened. No one said anything.

This is what greed, fear, indifference and complaisance do: they make people into cowards and criminals.

But here's the thing. The reason why Volkswagen did this in the US and not – as far as we know – in Europe is because the US has far stricter NOx emissions limits. In the US, cars can emit 31mg per kilometre. In Europe it's 80mg. It's far more expensive to create truly clean diesel in the US; far easier to fool the regulators.

So how virtuous do we feel about the fact that our countries are perfectly happy to let huge numbers of diesel cars emit more than twice as much of a pollutant that damages people's lungs and can lead to early deaths?

In fact, the comparison isn't quite as simple as that. NOx is only one of the pollutants emitted by diesel engines. Europe's regulators have concentrated on reducing overall CO2 emissions and increasing fuel economy. Even so, diesel is a dirty fuel, particularly in cities: London's Oxford Street has some of the highest NO2 levels in the world, and the Liberal Democrats have just passed a resolution recommending banning diesel vehicles keeping their engines running while they're stationary.

So let's come down off our high horses. Too many of us are content to be complicit in what's been called "a public health catastrophe" by sacrificing the health of our communities for lower prices, greater fuel economy and engines that last twice as long as petrol ones. Maybe we should admit that the attempt by a major multinational to game the system isn't too far removed from that.

Me? Since you ask, I drive a diesel car that's old and, I'm now realising, highly polluting. If this scandal helps educate people like me, maybe it will have done a bit of good.

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