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Vehicle emissions: It’s time to put emphasis back on human health

By Clive Shrubsole, on 6 October 2015


Last Saturday, I purchased a new VW Polo 1.2 Tsi. My friends and colleagues at UCL may find my decision to buy a car from a company embroiled in the emissions scandal strange, given my ‘green’ lifestyle. Why did I do it? Well, we’ll come to that shortly. In the meantime….


Volkswagen’s former boss Martin Winterkorn resigned last week as the emission-rigging scandal hit the headlines and is now, along with others, the subject of a criminal investigation. The German car maker is bracing itself for a barrage of lawsuits in the US and elsewhere over its attempt to subvert emissions testing in its diesel cars, with some commentators estimating that over 80 federal suits have been filed so far. Shareholders are also lining up for their piece of the potential billions that could be paid out, as the perfect storm of illegal behaviour and severe financial harm combine.

What we know so far:

  • The company admits a blatant and widespread attempt to rig emissions test for some cars in its diesel range. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some cars sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. In other words the real world emissions are ‘much’ higher than test results indicate.
  • The scandal has spread to other cars in the VW family; already 2.1 million Audi cars are affected, with other group brands likely to follow.
  • About 11 million diesel cars are affected, including 1.2 million in the UK. Diesel exhaust is a major contributor to air pollution, especially in Europe, where diesel engines are much more popular than in the US. Diesel emissions include carbon monoxide (CO) and (Nitrous Oxides (NOx), both of which have serious adverse health effects; Volkswagen manipulated the NOx readings. NOx is also a precursor to ground-level ozone which can cause respiratory problems.


What is uncertain:

  • Vehicle tax in the UK is based on levels of carbon dioxide emissions. So far, the cheat devices in the US appear only to have given false readings on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Did any devices cheat more than just NOx emissions?
  • Is VW the only brand using this software?


It may take a while for these issues to become clear, but aside from this, there have been some interesting suggestions as how VW, the largest car maker in the world (it produces nearly 41,000 vehicles daily) got itself into this mess. Elon Musk the CEO of Telsa suggests that we have got to the limits of possible improvements to diesel engines, and further limitations on emissions may not be possible with current technology, or not at all. With stringent emissions tests in Europe and the US, maybe VW just found it was not possible to reach the targets by fair means. Of course this is speculative, but whether he is correct or not, then maybe it’s time to push harder for electric vehicles, with their reduced emissions and put the emphasis back on human health. Futher details on the background to this story can be found here.


So why did I buy a VW Polo? Firstly, our old faithful petrol car  (A VW polo, 8 years old and 146,000 miles) was held together with welded plates and my mechanic Andy, who knows a thing or two about cars told me it won’t make the next MOT. I did my homework on different makes and costs (and my preference of course) and then the opportunist in me took over. With VW shares having dropped 40%, I smelt a bargain in the offing. I wasn’t wrong, after some serious negotiation I got a ‘substantial’ reduction with extras thrown in. It’s a petrol engine with very low emissions? My only regret is that I’m not yet able to buy a suitable electric car currently. Come the day….

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