What will be the long term consequences of the Volkswagen (VW) exhaust emissions scandal? Monday 21st September 2015 may go down in history as the day when the world finally lost confidence in fossil fuel powered vehicles. At the very least the scandal will probably lead to the diesel engine for private passenger vehicles becoming obsolete within five years.
Volkswagen’s greatest failure was its inability to see that old fashioned petrol and diesel engines had no future, because the fuel that they ran on was problematic. However when the news story broke in September 2015, it was one of a massive fraud on the part of Volkswagen to circumvent the requirements of the Clean Air Act in the United States of America.
Volkswagen had deliberately designed or commissioned computer software installed in its diesel engine vehicles, which recognised when the vehicle was being tested to check the exhaust emissions. The engine was then automatically switched into a test mode, that produced a smaller quanity of harmful emissions of noxious substances for the test equipment in the workshop to detect. The test mode was different to the normal performance of the engine when driving the vehicle on the road.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States discovered that Volkswagen had installed this software in vehicles to cheat during air polution tests. The EPA whose job it is to uphold the Clean Air Act, found that the vehicles were emitting 40 times more nitrogen oxide when driving on the road than under test conditions in a workshop.
The scale of the exhaust emissions scandal is huge. It was reported in the German media on Tuesday 22nd September that almost half a million cars in the United States were effected, and Volkswagen was liable for fines up to $18 billion in the United States. The next day it was reported that 11 million VW vehicles worldwide had been “manipulated” with the computer software to enable the fraud. The chief executive of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn was seen on German television apologising for the loss of trust in Volkswagen, and promising a quick “clearing up” of the scandal. The next day he was forced to resign.
The company would have to set aside €6.5 billion from the third quarter of 2015 to deal with the consequences of the scandal. It had to immediately stop selling affected models, and in Germany the company lost almost 20 percent of its value, around €27 billion on the Frankfurt stock exchange. By Saturday 26th September German newspapers were reporting that the manipulated software effected 2.8 million vehicles in Germany. Lawyers began to draw up legal actions against Wolkswagen on behalf of customers who had been sold sub-standard cars. This is not to mention the fines VW will have to pay for breaking EU environmental protection laws.
Why did VW waste so much money and time creating a computer programme to hide the dirty exhaust fumes of an old fashioned engine, when they could have invested in a new type of engine that runs on a cleaner fuel? The management of VW should have seen a few years ago that the fossil fuels of petrol and diesel oil were unsustainable, very bad for the environment, and therefore made no economic sense as a means of powering a mass production car.
In the same week that saw Volkswagen’s dodgy business model – built on deception and a diesel engine that emits noxious fumes – come unstuck, a project was launched in Europe to make hydrogen fuelled transport a practical alternative to petrol and diesel. The Hydrogen Mobility Europe Project (H2ME) aims to support the development of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS) across Europe. It brings together hydrogen mobility projects in several European countries which include: H2 MOBILITY Deutschland, Mobilité Hydrogène France, Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership, and UK H2 Mobility.
H2ME is a partnership between industry – the manufacturers of hydrogen powered vehicles, and the companies such as ITM Power in the UK which are building the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure which will make hydrogen fuel a practical reality for the motorist – as well as government on a national and European level. If H2ME is to succeed then consummers need to see that hydrogen is both cost efficient and safe for the environment.
If the motorists can see that their fuel originates from a renewable energy source such as wind or solar power, then the fuel supply chain becomes much more transparent. This is already happening at the first wind hydrogen refuelling station open to the public on the M1 motorway in South Yorkshire, England, where the fuel is made on the forecourt. According to ITM Power’s website the equipment at this refuelling station: “consists of a 225kW wind turbine coupled directly to an electrolyser, 220kg of hydrogen storage, a hydrogen dispensing unit and a 30kW fuel cell system capable of providing backup power generation for nearby buildings.”
The VW scandal will remind consummers around the world of the true cost of burning fossil fuels in vehicle engines: not just global warming and climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions, but also the immediate damage caused to consummers’ health by nitrogen oxide enissions. The only way VW can save its reputation is with a new clean fuel engine, which will probably be powered by hydrogen from renewable sources.
CBU, MIBA, THF (22.9.2015) ‘Der VW-Skandal’, Süddeutsche Zeitung.
(23.9.2015) ‘Winterkorn verspricht “schnelle Aufklärung”‘, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung für Deutschland.
L. Hauser, R. Kowalewsky, T. Reisener (26.9.2015) ‘Anwälte raten zu Klagen wegen VW’, Rheinische Post.
©Jolyon Gumbrell 2015