By now, I guess that everyone in the world has heard of how Volkswagen cheated consumers by falsifying the results of the emission tests from their diesel engines. It is a true witch hunt unleashed against Volkswagen. Maybe there are good reasons for it, but I think it is also something that should be taken with caution. A lot of it.
I have been a consultant for the automotive industry for some 20 years and I think that I know the way they operate. And I can tell you that they are not equipped for "cheating", intended as willingly ignoring or breaking the law. They just don't do that, they understand very well that the result could be something like what's happening to Volkswagen nowadays; something that could lead to their end as a car manufacturer. On the contrary,
This said, it is also clear that car makers are there to make a profit and their managers are supposed to "get results". So, if the laws and the regulations are not clear, or do not explicitly say that something is forbidden; then, if that something is supposed to provide some advantage to the company, it may be done.
This is, I think, what happened in this case. It is very well known that the results of the pollution tests made in the lab are always much better than those made on the road. And it is very well known that the performances of cars as measured in standardized tests are always much better than those of real cars. It is all very well known and documented: look for instance here and here. (h/t
So, if cheating is so diffuse, why was
Rather, I would point out something that I learned in my work with the automotive industry. It is that the story of pollution abatement in internal combustion engines is a good example of the diminishing
It is a long and fascinating story that, here, I can just sketch it in its main lines (*). Anyway, the concept of "pollution" became popular in the 1970s and it quickly became clear that a major culprit
However, what the Volkswagen scandal tells us is that, likely, most of the recent improvements may have been obtained, if not by cheating, at least by a creative interpretation of the rules. An especially telling point, here, has to do with the specific point that led to incriminate Volkswagen: the abatement of nitrous oxides. The problem is especially nasty because it arises from conflicting needs. One is
But, if it is true that we cannot win against thermodynamics, it is also true that we don't need to fight against it. A battle against the combustion engine was lost in the 1970s, but the war can still be won: the electric car is making a spectacular return. Electric motors do not produce any gaseous pollution, they are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, and, in addition, they are compatible with renewable energy. What can we ask more? This time, let's try to avoid the mistakes we made in the past.
(*) this is something that I hope to be able to describe in detail in a new book that I am working at.