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There’s no such thing as a ‘green’ car

Volkswagen is ponying up $18.2 billion to deal with its emissions cheating scandal, but environmentalists wonder if all the money in the world will be able to save those already negatively affected by the pollution and the wound to consumer confidence.
Volkswagen is ponying up $18.2 billion to deal with its emissions cheating scandal, but environmentalists wonder if all the money in the world will be able to save those already negatively affected by the pollution and the wound to consumer confidence. TNS

A 2010 Super Bowl ad featured “Green Police” putting a guy in a headlock for taking a plastic bag and hauling away an older gentleman who uses regular light bulbs instead of energy savers. But when these “police” put up a roadblock to stop polluting cars, they see an Audi diesel – and wave the driver through.

In 2015, a different Green Police – the EPA – caught up with the Volkswagen Group, which sold about 500,000 VW and Audi diesel cars between 2008 and 2015. Those cars were spewing 10 to 40 times the legal amount of nitrous oxide, a potent pollutant that causes smog. VW recently agreed to fix or buy back the vehicles, pay fines, and invest in “green vehicle technology.”

The VW scandal is about more than the cult of cheating among some car manufacturers. It’s about the increasing power and meaninglessness of the word green.

Diesel fuel is energy-dense, so diesel vehicles get more miles to the gallon than gasoline. However, burning diesel releases nitrous oxides and particulates implicated in asthma. In 2004, Audi was selling cars using an expensive catalyst and urea injection process to reduce pollution, but the product, called Bluetec, added thousands of dollars to the cost of the cars.

In 2006, VW executives viewed a PowerPoint presentation about how to trick emissions tests, while allowing pollutants to flow from diesel cars’ tailpipes during normal driving. Since 2009, this con has resulted in the emission of an estimated 13,000 to 59,000 extra tons of nitrous oxides in the United States alone.

But that was a con on government regulators. VW’s other con was on a particularly anxious strain of green consumer – the well-off early adopter who wants to be above reproach. VW played these buyers cynically. The cars’ reputation for passing “stringent emissions tests” won them a bunch of “Green Car” awards.

By 2014, VW was lobbying the government to give buyers of diesel cars rewards usually reserved for electric vehicles: tax rebates and access to HOV lanes.

Consumers had nothing to do with the initial regulation of tailpipe pollution and fuel economy, which were President Gerald Ford’s attempt to limit OPEC’s power after the 1973 oil embargo. But over time, these standards became proxies for environmental friendliness because they worked to reduce fuel consumption.

However, there has always been tension between the letter of the law and its spirit. The EPA testing regimen – which supplies data for tailpipe emissions, the Department of Transportation’s CAFE standards, and the Department of Energy’s fuel economy listings – has been vulnerable to cheating since the beginning.

In July 1973 , the EPA found that VW had installed devices to trick emissions tests on its Beetles. GM’s Cadillac got busted in 1995. Since then, Honda, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Daimler and Peugeot have gotten caught.

There’s no real reason to expect that automakers will straighten up and fly right. As the emissions and fuel economy standards get higher, manufacturers have greater incentives to cheat. So what is a confused consumer to do?

The short answer is to realize that no car is green – all cars carry environmental costs, some steeper than others. But consumers don’t have all the data to understand what those costs are.

Consumers need to take back the concept of green. We need more sophisticated metrics than the EPA’s numbers. We need transparency – perhaps an open-source version of data gatherers like OnStar and Verizon Hum that can “ground truth” claims about the vehicles.

If we let manufacturers and the government proceed alone – as we have with fuel economy – consumers will have little control over how new cars develop.

Lisa Margonelli writes the Small Science column for Zócalo Public Square, where she is the science and humanities editor.

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