Column: Volkswagen in hot water due to emissions

Cars are parked in a Volkswagen dealer in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. German media report that Volkswagen received warnings years ago about the use of illegal tricks to defeat emissions tests. The automaker admitted last week that it used special software to fool U.S. emissions tests for its diesel vehicles. (Luca Bruno/AP)

Cars are parked in a Volkswagen dealer in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. German media report that Volkswagen received warnings years ago about the use of illegal tricks to defeat emissions tests. The automaker admitted last week that it used special software to fool U.S. emissions tests for its diesel vehicles. (Luca Bruno/AP)

Volkswagen has come under fire from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for falsifying emissions tests with a device that depicts the cars as cleaner than in reality. The evidence of tampering with emissions tests arose during an academic study by John German, where the Volkswagen cars performed better for emissions on a dynamometer than the road. This is a huge economic and financial setback for the German manufacturer.

The Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. division, Michael Horn, bluntly stated, “We have totally screwed up,” according to Business Insider. That’s one way to divulge Volkswagen’s setback forcing it to set aside 6.5 billion Euros for recalls in the United States alone. Stocks have dropped 30 percent, and the EPA has the option of fining the company $37,500 for each vehicle in the country that breaches standards, according to BBC. With Volkswagen recalling up to 500,000 cars in the United States, this holds a potential fine of $18 billion. 

Now, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and Germany are all opening investigations. According to BBC, Volkswagen has admitted that there are about 11 million cars worldwide that have the device to cheat emissions. 

President Barack Obama recently put forth his Clean Power Act in August to cut U.S. emissions by 2030. Given that the diesel engines in about 500,000 cars in the United States are currently spewing over 40 percent the legal limit of nitrogen oxide into the air, I don’t think the President expected to make this big of an improvement to our emissions within a month. Volkswagen has until Oct. 7 to come up with a plan to bring their diesel emissions within the legal limit. 

The Los Angeles Times interviewed a car dealership owner in Southern California who didn’t think the public and the EPA’s reaction to this new piece of information regarding the emissions test was justified. As he put it, “Unlike the runaway Toyotas or the GM ignition switches, no one has died because of this problem – and people seem to forget that.” 

Of all the people to ignore the consequences directly or indirectly caused by climate change, I expected Californians to be the last. 

In a time where there has been a strong push for raising environmental awareness, this setback is nothing short of detrimental to the brand name. However, the question that remains is if the recent emphasis on the environment is enough to permanently hurt Volkswagen. 

Interestingly enough, this isn’t Volkswagen’s first brush with the legality over emissions. According to the New York Times, in the 1970s when the United States started to regulate tailpipe pollutants, Volkswagen was one of the first companies to get caught cheating and fined $120,000. Back in 1973, they had come up with a device to overtake the pollution control systems. One can only imagine that the 2015 version of the “defeat device” is smaller and more undetectable than it’s 1973 sibling. 

Being caught for breaking environmental policy four decades apart only goes to show that they didn’t learn their lesson, but simply got better at hiding their indiscretions. They had four decades to refine their criminal tactics to avoid the limitations set by legislature. Environmental policy laws are also notorious for making the legal limit the very maximum at which one can get away with polluting the Earth without a noticeable drastic and immediate change. 

Moreover, if the public has managed to overlook their imprudence from the 1970s and help bolster them to become a powerhouse in the automobile industry, is it possible that the 2015 fiasco will soon be overlooked in the coming years? The alternate scenario would be that rallying behind environmental policy and the environment itself is so strong, that the reputation will forever hold that dark mark – a mark that can only fade after a rigorous restructuring of future Volkswagen vehicles. 

In this case, lack of transparency cannot be attributed to being the issue. It’s simply a matter of honesty and integrity set forth by a company.


Jesseba Fernando is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at jesseba.fernando@uconn.edu.