Volkswagen’s obligation is to all Californians, not just the rich

A Volkswagen diesel car undergoes testing in California by researchers from West Virginia University. Their tests helped nail down the case against VW’s polluting vehicles.
A Volkswagen diesel car undergoes testing in California by researchers from West Virginia University. Their tests helped nail down the case against VW’s polluting vehicles. West Virginia University

California needs electric car-charging infrastructure all across our state to achieve ambitious climate targets and to meet the growing consumer demand for electric vehicles. Unfortunately, Volkswagen’s latest Zero Emissions Vehicle investment plan may be a missed opportunity to clean up our transportation sector and improve access in communities that still have significant infrastructure gaps, particularly in rural areas and disadvantaged communities.

We cannot forget how we got here. VW secretly installed “defeat device” software on its diesel cars, and then covered it up. These vehicles spewed up to 40 times the legally allowed amount of nitrogen oxide into California’s air. To make amends, VW pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay billions of dollars in fines, penalties, and other spending. This settlement was designed not only as a penalty, but also to mitigate the pollution caused by this fraud statewide.

But instead of putting together a balanced plan that serves the interests of the state, VW – through Electrify America – is laser focused on the sustainability of their own profits. They plan to invest $95 million to $115 million in places like San Francisco, Beverly Hills, or La Jolla, where projected demand is high for electric vehicles, rather than building charging stations in lower-income communities where the market will take longer to grow. Electrify America also proposes to spend millions on infrastructure for Lyft and Uber, and on charging stations built for autonomous vehicles.

Comparatively, only $2 million would be spent for community charging in rural areas badly in need of investment and opportunity. Another $4 million to $6 million would be dedicated to bus and shuttle charging. Residents of places like Delano and El Centro wouldn’t get a good opportunity to consider zero-emission vehicles.

Volkswagen wants us to believe that it is making substantial investments in rural and disadvantaged communities. But there’s a big difference between charging stations built for these communities and charging stations built for drivers traveling long distances and stopping along the highway.


The most concerning part? All of this new planning for the second investment cycle is happening before we have any hard data or detailed analysis on the outcomes from VW’s first $200 million investment plan approved in July 2017. We simply don’t know if this has been money well spent.

This data is critical in helping us understand if further adjustments need to be made to ensure low-income, rural, and disadvantaged communities are benefiting from this program. This commitment goes beyond where charging stations are located, and includes efforts VW promised to make to provide hiring opportunities to qualified residents and to ensure fair competition with other companies.

So what should be done?

First, the state Air Resources Board should require more data reporting from VW, and in a more timely manner. This is the only way we can know if their investments are aligning with California’s priorities. Better data leads to better accountability – after all, accountability is why this program exists in the first place.

Second, we should make crystal clear that it’s not enough simply to have charging stations along highways between well-heeled metro areas. VW has got to do more to actually put charging stations within rural and disadvantaged communities.

With Volkswagen’s spending, there’s a major opportunity to give a boost to electric vehicles and charging across the state. But it’s our responsibility to make sure this spending is spent in the interest of all Californians.

Dean Florez is a member of the California Air Resources Board and past Senate Majority Leader representing environmental justice communities. Eduardo Garcia represents California’s 56th Assembly District and is an ex-officio member of the California Air Resources Board.