Friday, January 15, 2016

Your cheatin heart ... is NOxious

It turns out that the "business ethics" of Volkswagen has been educational about yet another oxymoron: "clean diesel."  For that enlightenment, we need to thank the lying, cheating, professionals at the company that Hitler was so excited about ;)

Volkswagen's atrocious business practice might have been merely about selling cars. but that affected way more than customers' wallets alone:
Volkswagen played a leading role in convincing people to accept a technology that in many countries is causing a precipitous decline in air quality for millions of city-dwellers: the diesel engine. Monitoring sites in European cities like London, Stuttgart, Munich, Paris, Milan and Rome have reported high levels of the nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, or soot, that help to create menacing smogs.
You see, diesel is not really "clean"--something we ought to have known on our own!
Diesel exhaust is laden with insidious soot particles, the so-called PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair), which allow carcinogens to penetrate deep into tissues and organs. In other words, a driver who steps on the accelerator of a diesel car may be filling the lungs of nearby pedestrians, cyclists, infants in strollers and other drivers with potentially deadly particulate matter.
The price we are willing to pay for material progress!

It does seem like diesel for cars is now, ahem, exhausted ;)
Diesel trucks and large passenger cars, with their relatively clean exhausts, will doubtless soldier on. But who needs a small diesel? In terms of fuel economy, small turbo-charged petrol engines have all but caught up. The diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze, for instance, gets 33mpg on the EPA's combined cycle, while the thriftiest petrol version of the same car gets 30mpg—and is a whopping $2,400 cheaper. The small, frugal diesel—upon which Volkswagen placed so much of its hopes for a future of green motoring—looks to have been left for dead by the roadside.
As with everything else, and even though the ethics of customers is no better, a better future depends on we the people:
In the end it may be up to consumers to force change. After all, while climate change caused by carbon dioxide is a somewhat abstract concept, the choking effect of NOx emissions is not just in front of but in their very eyes.
Or, we can always choke ourselves to death, like they do in Delhi even now :(



Ramesh said...

This is a complex issue and not so cut and dried. We need either petrol or diesel for moving around. There really isn't a viable , scaleable, third option as yet.

Petrol vehicles emit about 20% more Co2. They also emit CO which diesel vehicles don't. They also emit Benzene a lot more than diesel vehicles.

Diesel vehicles emit many times more particulate matter than petrol vehicles. They are also higher emitters of Nitrogen Dioxide. Diesel vehicles are also more fuel efficient and therefore the equations in comparison with petrol vehicles are not a linear one.

Diesel cars can reduce their emissions load by optimising various ratios, higher injection pressure, exhaust gas recirculation and operating temperatures of catalytic converters. Presumably these are what Volkswagen tried for "clean(er) cars which you have vigorously ranted about.

A final variable is the sulphur content of diesel. This is the most important (relatively) cause of pollution from diesel vehicles. If the content is more than 0.1% all other measures are secondary. In India, it is often 0.4%. No surprise there is a big tradeoff with cost of diesel.

Then therefore there is the diesel subsidy which has warped the market in India totally. Thankfully, that has gone away thanks to lower crude oil prices.

As with every issue, there are multiple factors to take into consideration,. Demonising diesel vehicles is not a good way.

Anne in Salem said...

I got lucky and didn't buy a clean diesel VW last summer because of the obnoxious salesman. Everything I read sang its praises to the sky. How is a regular consumer, who is not technically versed like Ramesh, to learn all this in a comprehensible way? The volume of data is overwhelming. The science can be unintelligible. Most of it is contradictory. What am I to do?

Sriram Khé said...

"What am I to do?" Anne? I hate to say this to a pro-market Republican voter--let this be a huge lesson that businesses, especially the big time corporations that operate here, there, and everywhere, cheat customers big time! Economists refer to situations like this a information-asymmetry, which happens all the time. But then the pro-corporate folks shrug their shoulders and say "buyer beware." So, it is your call on how you want to vote in November ;)

"Presumably these are what Volkswagen tried" is incorrect, Ramesh. "To get the claimed fuel economy on the road, the VW engineers arranged to squirt less fuel into the exhaust trap than required for proper NOx conversion. Hence the need for the software cheat, which injected more fuel during the EPA test, and then reduced the amount as soon as the testing was completed." It was nothing but cheating because VW knew it could not otherwise meet the emission standards.
Back when I was a transportation planner in Southern California, which had some serious smog issues, we found that diesel causes way more harm than good. I was reminded of some of those discussions when I read the pieces that I had linked to. Especially in the Indian context of slow speeds and stop-and-go traffic, you will see the importance of the following sentences:
"diesel has a fatal flaw. It tends to burn dirty, particularly at low speeds and temperatures. In cities, where so much driving is stop and start, incomplete diesel combustion produces pollution that is devastating for human health."

Yes, societies need to figure out how to engage with the tradeoffs. However, when businesses are unethical, political decisions on the tradeoffs are going to be even more messed up.