If you’re keeping up with all the post-Dieselgate news, you know that more and more automakers — to one degree or another — are being discovered to have falsified emission standards and/or fuel economy data. Here’s a list of makers who have either admitted to emissions wrongdoing, or have been accused of it.
When I read of the admission from Nissan earlier this week, it gave me pause. The dawning realization that virtually all automakers are perceived as having their hands in the emissions-cheating cookie jar compelled me to look at the situation in a different light.
To explain my thinking, we have to go back in time a bit. The use of fossil fuel dates back to antiquity. Asphalt and/or dried beds of crude oil (muck) were used as far back as 6,000 years ago for purposes ranging from mortar for gluing buildings together, to waterproofing, to medicine. The Bible makes references to “pitch” being used in Moses’s basket and Noah’s Ark. Two thousand years ago, the Chinese discovered that petroleum could be burned. They used it for heating and lighting. They even used bamboo pipes to carry natural gas into homes. In the 19th century, the invention of the kerosene lamp in 1854 kicked off the widespread use of petroleum products in the modern world.
Can you imagine the joy humans must have felt upon discovering that the rare “bubblin’ crude” coming up through the ground could be burned to make light and to produce heat? Some must have felt oil was a gift from Mother Earth to help ease the suffering of day-to-day life.
21st century man of course has a different perspective. Somehow, what appeared to be a solution at one point in time, is now perceived as a major problem. That sort of thing seems to happen a lot on this planet. Computer technology was supposed to be a solution. Automation was alleged to bring forth an era of less stress, a 4-day work week, a paperless world, and an abundance of free time. Hmmm. People seem to be busier than ever. Some would say this conundrum is the inevitable effect of Paradise Lost. A consequence of the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. No matter how hard mankind works, solving old problems simply begets new ones.
Regardless, fossil fuels solved lots of problems and people became addicted. Certainly in the transportation sector. We love our cars, and we weren’t going to give them up (or even alter our driving habits much). We wouldn’t even do so when air pollution in the 1960s reached crisis proportions (60% of the airborne pollutants were coming from motor vehicles). Nor did we choose to give up our cars when it was later revealed that tailpipe emissions were contributing to the possible destruction of life as we know it on Earth.
Rather, we turned toward the greedy companies that make our cars. “Fix this!” — we cried out. Stop producing cars that make us sick and threaten the planet.
This was easier said than done. The car companies were also addicted. To profits. Their concern was that the cost to make cars pollution free — if they could even figure out how to do that — might make them unaffordable. Yet, in California, laws were passed to reduce auto emissions. A bureaucracy was erected to police the polluters, the California Air Resources Board (CARB). By the mid ’60s, pollution control devices began appearing on automobiles sold in California. By the mid ’70s, the first automakers were caught cheating on emissions devices. For example, Volkswagen admitted to installing defeat devices on its 1973 models. Let’s pause for an ironic chuckle.
The Cat and The Mouse
From the beginning, the goal of reducing automobile emissions has been a contentious game of cat and mouse between the automakers and the regulators. We already know how this goes. The regulators felt the need to set the bar high because left to their own devices, the automakers would likely stall till eternity ran out.
In Michael Shnayerson’s book, The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, combat maneuvers between GM and CARB were showcased in detail. We are instructed that forcing automakers to invent pollution reduction technology is an imperfect endeavor. Shnayerson illuminated this notion when describing the battle between GM and CARB over the development of the EV1. In the ’80s, GM was trying to produce an affordable pure electric car. GM was doing this on its own, free from any specific legal mandate. GM saw the electric car as both a superior solution to the daunting internal combustion engine problem, as well as viewing the EV as a nearly certain future market that GM wanted to dominate.
When CARB got wind of GM’s efforts, the Board immediately legislated a due date for the company’s electric tech to be perfected. GM strenuously objected to the notion of “invention on a schedule.” Even if one was behooved to give CARB a pass on its approach to bring GM along, it becomes clear that the tech catching up with the law is often a bridge too far. In GM’s case, the company could never rein in costs enough to make the EV1 affordable to the mass market. Not by a long shot. Thus the legal battles. Many lawsuits have been initiated by automakers against both CARB and the EPA over similar regulation.
Of course, one way to skip going to court — with its uncertain outcome — is to cheat. And we see now that cheating is an oft used tool in the automaker’s bag of tricks. So, is cheating the act of a greedy, uncaring corporation interested in nothing but profits? Or is cheating the inevitable result of legislation getting too far in front of technology?
Moreover, how about when everyone cheats. What does that mean? Is this collusion? Are the automakers conspiring together? Or are they just copying each other to remain competitive? Once one player cheats, it’s damned hard not to follow suit. That conundrum is pervasive. Take politics — as soon as one candidate bends the rules to fill the campaign coffers, the other candidates have no choice but to follow suite. Another example is speeding on the freeway. When all the traffic is doing 70 MPH in a 55 MPH zone, if you stick to the law and do 55 MPH, you not only stand out from the pack, you run the risk of being flattened.
My point here is simply that the saga of cleaning up the internal combustion engine may not be as black & white a process (read: good & evil) as is often portrayed in the media. Look at how many outlets carried the Dieselgate story. Yeah, the story had to be told. Laws were broken. Consumers were deceived. But what a juicy story to report! Such a clear case of a greedy, uncaring corporation stooping to such a crime. The media gave us something to hate … they know that hate attracts eyeballs. People need an enemy. Something that we have full permission to hate. When that need is met, the ego has a field day. It gets to be righteous, because who would dare question its fury against such an evil deed?
I don’t defend VW, but on the other hand, I now see how such a thing could occur. Especially if everyone else is doing it! Is it greed at that point? Or is it the survivalist instinct cutting in? (A basic reflex just as strong as hate.) Given the history, the context, the desperate need society has for vehicular transportation; juxtaposed to the automakers trying to stay in business; the situation is not so “black & white.” There’s a touch of gray there.
What’s going to free us from the muck of the ICE problem is of course the EV. Ultimately, the electric car, and all the other ICE machines, will be powered purely from renewable, non-polluting resources. Then society can move on the next set of problems. They seem to be unending. By the way, there may be a way to solve that problem as well (the problem of problems), but that’s a subject for another time, and likely another publication. :>