The special software was a surprise. The particular company caught cheating on their exams even more so. But the implications for the air we breathe wasn’t. Or shouldn’t have been.
I should have known. I shouldn’t have bought or bought into the fairy-tale of low-emission, environmentally-friendly diesel automobiles. But I did.
Why did I buy into it? Advertising? Government subsidies in the form of lower taxes? The thought of how much more affordable a decent family car would be to buy and run? All of the above.
Why shouldn’t I have bought it? I work in the industry. I should have known.
Okay, so maybe I’ve managed more projects involving bicycles and travel planning than tailpipes and fuel types. And I’m not that knowledgeable about cars generally. I could never identify make and model in a police or emissions fraud line-up. Still, I should have known.
Why? I once did a fair bit of work developing a business case for a Low Emission Zone. I was investigating it as a potential solution not to a carbon emissions problem, but local air quality ‘exceedance’ issues. I was familiar enough with the EU regulations on emission standards to use their strange neologism, ‘exceedance’. Basically, it referred to how much the levels of nitrous oxides and particulates, the emissions that diesel engines produce in greater quantities than petrol engines, exceeded the target levels the EU had set for minimising health impacts on or at ‘receptors’. Another favourite word in air quality monitoring, receptors were either people or places where people would be regularly exposed to pollution. Places like schools and hospitals and homes.
In common with too many places in the UK, Reading has multiple sites of exceedance, which were monitored as part of a single air quality management area. I went to a seminar at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to learn about local government’s responsibilities on these issues. I completed a one-day course on the science of air quality. I visited Transport for London to learn about their Low Emission Zone. I even met some bona fide scientists at Kings College London who had plenty of graphs and jargon to verify their credentials.
Perhaps I did not understand every molecule of what those scientists had to tell me, but I did absorb some key concepts from all this research.
First, as the bar was raised for manufacturers to reduce both carbon emissions and other pollutants, the science and technology to make it all work became more challenging. This is because some chemical processes and efficiencies that might decrease carbon emissions could increase emissions of other pollutants and vice versa. I also learned that the background levels of nitrous oxides in many places were increasing due to greater ownership and use of diesel-powered, private vehicles. The result: failure to meet targets. This was unexpected by experts because it indicated that newer vehicles manufactured under stricter standards were still emitting significantly more in real life than they had in their pre-release testing.
So I knew, at least six years ago, that something was going wrong if vehicles met standards at the testing stage, but weren’t so environmentally-friendly in situations with your average person behind the wheel. Was technology not quite keeping up with those standards? Why reduce carbon emissions, if it made local air quality worse?
Yet, as far as I’m aware, no one suggested that the manufacturers and perhaps the testers, might be fiddling with the results. It didn’t occur to me. VW took me by surprise, but I wasn’t surprised by the implications. Only annoyed that I hadn’t seen it coming. I should have known.