VW and Ecomodernism

In the battle against global warming it is tradition that popular media outlets tiptoe around the unintended consequences of the battle. But with the rolling Volkswagen debacle the storyline has been so irresistible journalists and copy-writers have not been able to help explaining. How global warming caused CO2 to be a pollutant, led VW and European car manufacturers to turn to diesel, how diesel made other potent pollutants, and finally led Volkswagen to sell its soul.

But there is an undiscussed link: the train of thought behind the EU push for diesel is the same as the ecomodernists. Behind the thinking of both is the fiction that via a complex meshwork of regulation and ‘innovation’, the impossible would become possible. The logic of the EU in encouraging diesel was that it released less CO2 and that the resulting pollution could be cleaned up by technology. Except the cleanup leads to increased cost, reduced engine power, and as in the case of Volkswagen, cheating.

It is inescapable that if you take a hydrocarbon fuel internal combustion system and strangle the exhaust, either to control CO2 or pollutants, you will lose power. This loss of power will feed back in any number of different routes to defeat the original objective. In the words of Emerson, when it comes to energy use it is ‘best to pay scot and lot as you go along’.

If Volkswagen had put a fraction of the ingenuity that went into its supposed defeat devices into questioning the basis for the CO2 rule it tried to rigorously adhere to, it wouldn’t have found itself in the pickle it is currently in.



  1. Scottish Sceptic

    Well said!! And of course the problem is that these days companies like Volkswagen & unfortunately whole nations are run by incompetent fools who haven’t a clue about the engineering – indeed often they are extremists anti-engineers – and as a result sign up to daft environmental legislation with no idea whatsoever how it affects their product, country or even the whole world.

  2. Billy Liar

    I have yet to see anywhere in the comment on VW that I have read an explanation of what VW is alleged to have done. All the comment accuses VW of cheating but no-one explains how.

    For example, if emissions testing is done at set points and the vehicle passes using those set points, only an idiot would conclude that in some other regime (not at the set points) everything would be hunky-dory. Furthermore, a manufacturer would be foolish not to optimise the vehicle engine control system to pass the set point testing.

    WTF is a defeat device? Particularly as it seems you can’t see it, hear it, touch or smell it. (it’s just a few 0’s and 1’s in firmware)

  3. Shub Niggurath

    BL, the VW systems are AdBlue – a post-combustion urea solution system, or a NOx trap. Both of them do their job but arguably not well enough, so the engine is run in a low efficiency combustion mode with worsens mileage and power but emits less NOx during testing conditions. Since testing is with a stationary car, the vehicle would pass NOx testing and power and mileage are not an issue. After the test the vehicle would run in its usual mode offering the driver power and mileage – as a result of efficient diesel combustion – along with increased NOx emissions.

    The defeat device rests in the electronics which detects that the vehicle is being tested and changes the mode of functionng of the engine to a low power/efficiency one so it lowered NOx results.

    The VS shenanigans were detected and confirmed by the use of so-called ‘portable emissions management system’ , basically, a mobile testing rig that ran with the car measuing NOx under ‘real-world’ running conditions. But I don’t know if the testing agency (the ICCT) knew that an elaborate software fix was installed in the vehicles. It appears they rather conducted a ‘we show real-world output of pollutants are different from stationary testing output’ type of study. The defeat device admission came from VW.

  4. manicbeancounter

    Laws like those in the United States and in the UK provide incentives. The intended consequence was to reduce CO2 emissions, with checks made to make sure this is complied with. Policy-makers made the following assumptions
    1. They know the real priorities, Rising GHG emissions is the biggest problem facing the planet and every human being on it.
    2. Expertly chosen tests is all that is necessary. Deriving the optimal from trial and error, and checking the results in a number of different ways (the Manicbeancounter approach) is not necessary.
    3. For a desired event to happen, it is simply necessary to legislate. Failure of people to respond in the appropriate manner is either through ignorance (we failed to get the message across) or through willful disobedience. In the case of large corporations it is always the latter.

    In the real world large businesses respond to incentives. But these incentives are sometimes unintended. An extreme example was Prohibition in the US. By banning alcohol it was supposed to make the US population better people by removing the demon drink. In actuality it turned the majority of the population into criminals and gave great power to gangs of vicious thugs. By so doing, alcohol consumption was actually higher at the end of Prohibition than before.

    Emissions laws are not nearly so bad. Cars emissions and fuel economy have improved over the last few years. Fuel economy would have improved through the high oil prices – it did in the 1970s and 1980s following the 1973 oil embargo.
    However, the tests meant optimization of engines for tests. An extreme example. The wife’s car is a Skoda Roomster 1.4 petrol. A slab of a car, it drinks petrol. The Mrs will be lucky to get 35mpg on the motorway. I switch on a CD and optimize the MPG, getting 50mpg. In a car of 20-30 years ago the Mrs would have got a similar fuel consumption and I would have got 40mpg.
    VW appear to have taken the optimization of tests to a new level. This time it is for real pollutants. Faced with a step increase in the toughness of pollution laws, they appear to have circumvented the laws. Like with prohibition, it was impossible to comply with the tough laws, so VW evaded them. Nothing like the Mafia of course. More like the pure homo economicus maximizing profits by out-doing the competition according to the incentives available.

    Even worse is the incentives for countries to cut emissions. For Paris 2015, when countries do their bit to avoid dangerous climate change do they
    1. Do every thing possible to maximize their countries emissions reductions, trusting every other country to follow their noble lead and do likewise?
    2. Make some empty commitments, based on extreme emissions scenarios. claim that commitments are in the context of more important priorities and shift the focus onto other countries?
    Law makers in the area of climate policy are naive about the real world and the people within it. When policy fails they blame anybody but themselves.