What VW should pay here for its emissions fraud

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has promised full cooperation with the government following the company's admission it rigged nearly a half million cars to defeat U.S. smog tests.
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has promised full cooperation with the government following the company's admission it rigged nearly a half million cars to defeat U.S. smog tests. AP

Volkswagen’s admission that it cheated on U.S. emissions tests for nearly 500,000 diesel VWs and Audis should infuriate every American who draws breath. But in California, it’s a special blow.

Diesel exhaust is inherently filthy, and packed with smog-making particulates and nitrogen oxide gases. Diesel soot is a carcinogen and leads to asthma. That’s why California has restricted it for decades.

But in 2002, when the Legislature passed a bill regulating tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, European automakers and manufacturers of emissions-control equipment persuaded air quality officials here that with new technology, they could meet new greenhouse gas standards, and reduce the NOx and particulates associated with diesel engines.

“Clean diesel” sounded like a win-win; state and federal authorities wanted the historic new standards to progress smoothly, and the auto industry was threatening time-consuming lawsuits, fearing the new rules would damage then-booming sales of SUVs and pickups.

In fact, the California law did go on to shape federal regulations and pave the way for the modern age of Priuses, Volts and Teslas. But clean diesel seemed at the time a way for the industry to transition, if the engines could only be made greener. Even the then-head of the state Air Resources Board publicly shared his high hopes.

Alas, it now turns out that at least one clean diesel poster child was just playing dirty. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board accused Volkswagen of rigging its automotive software to artificially lower emissions readings during tests.

Inside the laboratory, a so-called “defeat device” enabled the company’s diesel Beetles, Passats, Golfs, Jettas and Audis to meet U.S. pollution standards. On the road, however, the cars throw off as much as 40 times the legally allowable amount of smog-producing pollutants. This, VW had said, had gone on since 2009, when current standards took effect.

There’s no telling how many lungs have been wrecked or how many lives lost to asthma and other respiratory diseases thanks to this corporate lie, which apparently was concocted so that Audis and VWs would remain more or less affordable and not lose any of the “kick” so coveted by diesel aficionados.

Adding insult to injury, taxpayers were taken to the cleaners: A Los Angeles Times analysis this week estimated that, based on the fraudulent testing, the federal government paid out as much as $51 million in green car subsidies.

And that is just in this country. Volkswagen said Tuesday that the crooked software is on 11 million vehicles worldwide.

Volkswagen will and should pay dearly for this betrayal. Federal authorities have already called on the automaker to recall all the affected vehicles and modify its emissions system. It could also face billions of dollars in fines, not to mention penalties from the civil lawsuits already being filed.

Fine. But here, where the fraud has done the most damage and most thoroughly violated the public trust, there should be special penance. If these allegations are true, Volkswagen has spewed six years’ worth of illegal fumes all over California and tarnished the good name of local car dealers who will now lose sales and reputations, thanks to a top-down con they had nothing to do with.

In the reckoning, there should be a place for the punishment to get creative – fleets of Volkswagen-subsidized electric vehicles for the freeway-adjacent poor in East Los Angeles or West Fresno, maybe. Or a nice, big investment in asthma research. Or zero-emission buses for inner-city school districts.

Perhaps Volkswagen executives who approved the deception should experience some of what they’ve inflicted on Californians. Maybe they should live for six years next to a freeway clogged with their sooty engines. Let them, as we have, just breathe.

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