We finally have a more important scandal to discuss than air pressure in footballs. On September 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laid out a case for a notice of violation against Volkswagen. The issue? Computer software within Volkswagen clean diesel vehicles that allows the cars to sense an emissions test and activate emissions controls. The vehicles then could easily pass stringent U.S. Tier 2, Bin 5 emission standards. A Tier 2 vehicle must meet an average nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission limit of 0.07 grams per mile. However, when the programmed vehicles were not under emissions testing, emissions controls were disabled and Volkswagen vehicles spewed up to 40 times that level of NOx emissions.
In a matter of days, Volkswagen lost $17 billion in shareholder value as the company’s stock plummeted over 30%. Volkswagen recently became the largest car seller in the world, selling nearly 10 million vehicles globally in 2014. The automaker will face up to $18 billion in fines from the U.S. government, and has also committed $7.3 billion toward recalling nearly 500,000 vehicles for the reprogramming necessary to comply with pollution standards. Volkswagen has also halted sales of affected 2015 models, and the EPA will not certify the company’s 2016 models.
While the U.S. market accounts for 6% of Volkswagen sales, the damage to the company’s environmentally responsible image is significant. Diesel vehicles account for over half of vehicle sales in Europe, and European government policies have made diesel fuels cheaper than gasoline. Emissions standards for diesels are also less strict in Europe compared to in the United States.
The U.S. Clean Diesel Market
Volkswagen TDIs represented nearly 30% of diesel sales in the U.S. market. Effective greenwashing campaigns by diesel automakers have created a reputation for diesel as a clean fuel source for our vehicles. Diesel has a higher energy density than fuel and diesel engines also operate more efficiently, so higher miles per gallon can be achieved. A clean image and a high fuel efficiency greatly increased the popularity of diesel models in the United States.
Whether arguing for or against diesel as a clean fuel source, it is important to discuss the emissions contents of diesel versus traditional fuel. Traditional fuel-burning vehicles give off higher yields of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions than diesel vehicles. These emissions are minimized by improved catalytic converter designs. Diesel vehicles emit more NOx, which in turn creates smog (ozone). The EPA is likely to take final action on stronger smog standards before the end of 2015. While diesel automakers utilize a variety of treatment systems to reduce NOx emissions, the Volkswagen scandal has significantly squashed the idea of diesel as a clean fuel source. How the public will respond to this breach of trust is yet to be seen.
Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Market growth
As the smog clears on the Volkswagen scandal, what opportunity is presented to hybrid and electric vehicles? As the image of clean diesel fades, the growing consumer base for fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles is expected to turn toward hybrid and electric vehicles. With the disgrace of the country’s most popular diesel model and growing interest in electrification, the auto industry may soon see a significant restructuring.
Tags: Clean Transportation, Finance & Investing, Policy & Regulation, Transportation Efficiencies
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