Peter's Blog

As Reliable As A Volkswagen

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Periodically this week I have been trying to work out why the church website had reverted to what is known as WSOD, aka the dreaded White Screen Of Death. You may not know how this website works, but it is based on what is called a content management system (CMS) comprising a large database containing all the information the website needs to create the content of the website plus thousands and thousands of support files that provide the framework for the content. Which is a complicated way of saying that it is not as simple as creating a Word document!

However, finally this evening with some friendly help from an online community I traced the problem to a particular part of the website. A swift payment to access their latest file updates and an update to our own site and hey presto it is back in business. The frustrating part of this was that all the while we could access the "behind the scenes" part of the website, it is just that the "front of house" bit that you all get to see was not accessible.

It has meant that a number of things I wanted to blog about have been passing me by over the past week or so. However, one of the subjects is not going to go away soon. I mentioned on Sunday morning when we were thinking about the power of names, that names can very easily become tainted by bad associations and in that light happened to touch on Volkswagen.

Unless you have been living in a cave or have absolutely no interest in cars, transport, corporate regulations, climate change, air quality, etc. you will know that Volkswagen has become the intense focus of governments around the world as the truth has spilled out over the last two weeks of the scale of the deception they had, until this point, successfully maintained.

Indeed, it has been so successful that VW in the first half of 2015 was the world's biggest car company. I rather suspect that the latter half of 2015 will tell a very different story.

Why am I blogging about this? It is all related to my decision to purchase an electric vehicle two years ago. Since then I have become rather an advocate for the move to transport via zero emission vehicles. I have been vlogging (video blogging) about this on YouTube over the past two years and have, strange though it may seem, managed to create a wee following of folks who are also thinking along these lines and want to find out more. I met quite a few people in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago who had bought Renault ZOE cars like mine and were very appreciative of the wee videos I have been putting out. Last week I received an email from a fellow minister in England who has also taken delivery of a ZOE and made the connection between these changes in how we think about transportation and a witness to others in good stewardship of the earth.

This has been thrown into ever greater clarity by the repercussions of what has been revealed from Volkswagen's deception. What are those repercussions? 11 million cars produced by Volkswagen have been creating many, many times (as much as 40 times) the pollution in real life than either governments or consumers understood them to be producing. More CO2, for sure, as we all know from every car company that the mpg figures quotes in the sales literature is nothing like the figures you tend to actually get in day to day driving. You can usually take off 40% from the claimed mpg figures to get what you are actually going to achieve. However, CO2 is not really the issue here. The issue with what VW was doing is focussed on other pollutants such as Nitrous Oxides. These are very damaging to health, and are known to contribute to thousands of deaths worldwide each year. 

Diesel cars produce a ghastly mix of pollutants out of the exhaust pipe - worse than petrol cars - requiring some highly complex and expensive engineering to overcome in order to meet the emissions standards of Europe and the USA. The USA is actually more rigorous in its requirements than Europe, partly because diesel cars are a tiny fraction of sales  there, whereas in Europe they comprise more than 50% of sales and thus there is massive weight in the market and through the large car manufacturers and oil producers supporting diesel. The huge growth in diesel car sales, incidentally, was driven (sic) by a correct desire to reduce CO2 emissions. The generally better fuel economy of diesels was an instant way to reduce those emissions that contribute to global warming. In a textbook case of unforseen consequences (if one is generous to the politicians who encouraged diesel car sales) what has become clear is that the switch in the transport stock from petrol to diesel has had a heavy price in local air pollution. Any cyclist will tell you that. Even the Supreme Court of the UK has instructed the government to come up with plans to do something about the air pollution problem. The official number of early deaths from air pollution in the UK is at least 29,000 per annum which is more than caused by obesity and alcohol. Think about that for a moment. And that number may be much less than the real figure as it does not take into account all air pollutants.

Okay, so there are big problems with diesel fuelled cars. Here I need to acknowledge that our other car is diesel fuelled. It has a particulate filter but does not have any of the more sophisticated filtering and catalytic systems that are required to get closer to the current Euro emission standards required for new cars let alone the more restrictive standards that the USA demands. It pains me to think about it.

What has tipped VW over the edge in this story is that they decided to game the system, to deliberately add software to their cars that can sense when a car is being tested for emissions and revert into a low power mode that greatly enhances the emissions systems installed in the car to enable the car to meet the required emission standards for the cars to be sold in the US or Euro markets. When those same cars are then driven on the road in regular driving the engines are in their normal full power mode with lots of power, great driving characteristics and emissions that are multiple times greater than the supposed emission limits for those cars. So these cars that were then marketed as "clean diesels" and good to drive all at an affordable price, were a con. Volkswagen's push to succeed globally at selling cars and making a profit (which is, let's be clear here, the only reason that any business or corporation exists) meant that they deliberately lied to their customers about the products those customers were in good faith purchasing. 

Now, I would be fully expecting other manufacturers to start getting very sweaty under the collar as governments around the world start to investigate and bring in more realistic real life driving tests into their emissions testing, though it must be said that some companies cars, notably BMW, did pass the strict US emissions testing even in real life driving. The technology used on those cars, though, was a lot more expensive than the technology VW had been using. 

I am glad that VW has been caught at this game though a part of it saddens me. There has actually been a behind the scenes tussle going on between VW and the US Environmental Protection Agency for over a year now. Frustrated at the lack of progress and transparancy from VW in their discussions the EPA decided to go public. The sadness for me comes because VW have also been doing some fantastic work on electric vehicles and plug in hybrids. Though I did read someone suggest that VW should offer an EV or plug-in hybrid to all those who had bought a VW with the offending diesel engines as a way to try to make ammends. I rather suspect this one will play out in the courts instead.

My two big takeaways from all this is to be even more affirmed that fossil fuel burning vehicles are last century's technology and the quicker we can move the bulk of the transportation stock to alternatives the better. It will be better for global warming by reducing CO2 as a result of the greater efficiencies, and it will make a huge difference to air pollution in towns and cities. The other takeaway is that the response to climate change really does lie in the hands of massive companies and industries like VW. Governments can make standards, but unless the companies abide by those standards then they are meaningless. A reputable company with a name that resonates with trust (remember those old VW Golf adverts with the tag line "If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen") has shown that where they think they can get away with it, and when they recognise that the cost to do the right thing will hurt their bottom line they are willing to cheat. 

More information here from BBC Newsnight in a good report with some of the details.

Does this mean there is no hope? No, absolutely not. But proper rules and regulations over businesses are not just there for show, they are there to protect us and the environment even if it costs more to produce a product (and harm the profit margins), though most companies are recognising that moving towards a more environmentally aware future will, in the long run, save them lots of money. Siemens is one such massive company that is investing heavily in becoming carbon neutral and expects in the long run to have huge savings.

Okay, rant over. In the meantime, Vive la rEVolution!