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Volkswagen's $7.3 billion diesel deception is a blessing in disguise

No cost is too great to accelerate clean energy

Volkswagen

Volkswagen’s snowballing diesel emissions scandal is a nightmare on virtually every level. For the company, lawsuits will follow, heads will roll, and billions of dollars will be paid in fines and damages. (As of this writing, Volkswagen had already earmarked €6.5 billion to deal with the fallout — and that may not be enough, considering that at least 11 million vehicles are affected, owners will rightfully demand modifications or replacements, and regulatory agencies worldwide could levy billions in penalties.) If the situation is as egregious as the EPA and Volkswagen have suggested, all of this will be justified. Meanwhile, owners are stuck owning a disgraced car: resale values plummet, and until (if?) Volkswagen issues a software update, they’re driving around carrying the guilt of knowing their "clean diesel" isn’t clean at all.

If I owned a Volkswagen affected by this, I’d be livid. If I owned any Volkswagen, I’d be livid, actually, knowing that my purchase helped underwrite a systematic campaign of deception at the highest levels. But there’s a silver lining here: in the discrediting one of the world’s most prolific light-duty diesel engines, automakers have lost a crutch slowing their deployment of emissions-free powertrains. There are now fewer excuses than ever to delay full-on deployment of electric vehicles.

Diesels are generally known for their excellent mileage, which has historically come at the cost of really disgusting emissions; in recent years, "clean diesel" technologies have tried to erase that reputation. The so-called Type EA 189 engine, a 2-liter "clean diesel," gets over 40 mpg in a variety of Volkswagen and Audi models, a figure that may be assisted by its software cheat. And diesels have factored prominently into Volkswagen’s plans for meeting fuel economy rules: in the US, it’s a top-ten performer for average fuel economy, led by its high-volume small diesel sales. This comes amid tightening Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulation, a US standard for requiring automakers to either pay fines or meet a minimum average fuel economy rating across their lineup — in fact, VW was so excited about the prospects of clean diesel’s effect on fuel economy that it complained in 2011 that it wasn’t incentivized well enough to make them. "If one-third of the vehicles on the road today were clean diesel, the US would save 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. Yet there is no consideration in the current proposal for the positive impact clean diesels can have on fuel consumption here in the US," the company said. Clearly, it’s a less compelling argument when those clean diesels are actually spewing garbage into the atmosphere.

vw diesel mpg
Mileage figures for VW's diesels, pulled from an old version of the company's website, will almost certainly be rendered invalid. (Volkswagen)

The good news is that there are other ways to meet CAFE standards, which — unless they’re derailed by a required mid-term review — are set to ramp up to 54.5 mpg in 2025. You don’t need diesel to do it. In fact, you don’t need internal combustion engines at all: there’s Tesla, of course, which is spurring a new generation of real-world electrics like the Chevrolet Bolt and even Volkswagen’s own Audi e-tron quattro and Porsche Mission E. Several other global brands have committed to rolling out high-range EVs in the coming years, and those who haven’t inevitably will, if not to meet regulations then to meet growing demand for powertrains that don’t destroy the planet.

Some are lamenting the damage to diesel’s public perception that Volkswagen has done; the US, in particular, has taken decades to recover from some notoriously terrible GM diesels that were hastily assembled in the late ’70s and early ’80s in response to the era’s high gas prices. I take a very different view: let the diesel develop a bad reputation, even an unfairly bad one. (There are clean diesels on the market that seemingly don’t cheat — a BMW X5 tested by the organization that uncovered Volkswagen’s deception passed, for instance.) Even in the rosiest view of internal combustion, using 100 percent biodiesel in place of drilled petroleum, environmental impact will never be brought to zero. Superior gas and diesel tech is a medium-term solution at best, while clean energy scales and comes down in price.

Traditional engines are going to be demonized, one by one

This is a wake-up call that any car company that wishes to continue to exist and be relevant must move swiftly. Major figures from across the industry lament pure electrics as a money losing proposition and insist that they’re focused on delivering what customers want: I heard it myself this year in interviews with Ford CEO Mark Fields and GM CEO Mary Barra. But as time goes on, traditional engines are going to be demonized, one by one, either by continued deterioration of the planet, by strict regulation, by popular culture, or by the kind of catastrophic embarrassment that Volkswagen is now facing this week.

And if an auto executive is telling you we can’t immediately start phasing out gas and diesel, that it’s too costly, that customers don’t want it — just remember: Volkswagen has already given you 11 million reasons to argue otherwise..