September 27, 2015

What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?
Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs. I did know about the particulate emissions but made a conscious decision that the low carbon emissions was worth the added pollution, especially since I live in a small town where the dust from unpaved roads make a larger contribution to the particulate levels in the air.

But I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

The fix will very probably decrease the power of the car - I don't mind that: the 2.0L engine is too much for a car this size anyway. But it may also decrease the overall fuel efficiency. And nobody can say right now by how much.

I don't know about you, but getting rid of the car and buying a new one is not in the cards for me right now. And because it's the only car in our family, that's the one I will have to keep driving until this gets sorted out. It could be a while, as the smoggy cloud surrounding the scandal seems to keep spreading, with every passing day implicating more cars, more countries, and possibly other car makers as well, and with lawyers licking their chops over the impending law suits.

What to do in the mean time?

First, find out if the car you own is affected. The rogue software is installed in the following models, manufactured in the last few years:

2009 - 2015 VW Jetta TDI
2009 - 2014 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI
2010 - 2015 VW Golf TDI
2015 VW Golf Sportwagen TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Beetle TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Beetle Convertible TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Passat TDI
2010 - 2015 Audi A3 TDI

Wait a minute: that last one is not a Volkswagen. Right! But Audi is part of the Volkswagen group, and the Audi A3 shares a platform with the VW Beetle, Golf and Jetta (plus a few models in the Skoda and Seat lineups).

What you do next depends on your circumstance, and in particular where you live exactly. The following assumes that you are sound of body, and willing to do a bit more work to keep the particulate pollution from your diesel car from your neighbours.

If you live in the city:
Park your car and walk, ride your bike, or take the bus or the subway. You know, whenever you practically can. Meet your neighbours. Beg a ride from friends to go to your farmer's market, and make them dinner in return. Find creative ways to get around without using the four wheels - hey, maybe you will find that the hassle of maintaining those wheels aren't worth the convenience you get from it.

If you live outside the city:
In small towns and rural areas you don't have much of a choice, as distances are larger and public transportation more sparse if they exist at all. Plan your errands to minimise your total miles: shop for groceries on the way home from work, and plan ahead to do all your errands in the same general area on the same trip. Which can save you a lot of time as well as money and emissions. Walk or take the bike where you can (and where it's safe). Carpool with people who don't have a diesel car.

No matter where you live, on a bright and sunny day your car will make more smog than on overcast or rainy days; this is because the UV light from the sun promotes smog formation. So if you have the luxury of timing your errands, try to do them on overcast or rainy days, and walk or bike on the sunny days (that works out in a fortunate way!).

However, if it's not sunny because a pall of smog has parked itself over where you live, don't drive your diesel car. The nanoparticle aerosols already in the air will glom onto the NOx coming out of your tailpipe and form the dangerous particulate pollution.

As with any dangerous air-borne anything (say, the VOCs from painting or from your nail polish), proper ventilation helps a lot. Do your drives on breezy rather than wind-still days. Smog particles actually don't form the instant the NOx leaves your tailpipe: the NOx forms a nucleation center that accretes other tiny particles, and this process can take a few hours (depending on how many of those nanoparticles are around), so it's not like your car is coughing lung-cancer clouds directly onto the cyclists with whom you share the road.

Consider this: your diesel car, even with its rogue software and its high NOx emissions, is still a heck of a lot cleaner than diesel cars and trucks that used to spew those visibly black clouds wherever they went. Also: in the US, particulate pollution comes overwhelmingly from the dust from unpaved roads. My overview of particulate sources is here.

I'm not trying to apologise for the ills of polluting emissions, and certainly not for covering them up. I'm trying to tell you that there is no reason to panic even if you are forced to keep driving your diesel car. By all means, try to stay out of that car as much as possible. But if you must drive it, so be it.

And when it comes to the recall, please do bring in your car to the dealer. I'm hoping the EPA will force VW to pay out for every car that is brought in for the software patch, or however they decide to resolve this. About $500 per car would pretty much guarantee that every car will get fixed. If significant torque (="fun drive") and fuel efficiency is lost, that may have to be more like $1000.

But make no mistake: even though the EPA sets the legal limits for emissions of various substances, in the aggregate driving a car is dangerous and dirty. It's as simple as that. Every car running on fossil fuels, not only the diesel cars, emits a toxic brew of volatile organic compounds and aerosols. And carbon dioxide in spades, more than a pound per mile if your car does 20 mpg.

It comes down to this: Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad.



You may also like:
1. Just how bad is diesel exhaust?
2. "The butler - I mean the software - did it."
3. Urban Design and Traffic



  1. We own two VW Diesel cars, one a 2011 Jetta and one a 2015 Golf. In looking at current price quotes of a gasoline version versus the TDI, the price difference is about $1,000 given all of the current issues, I think that VW would do well to not only offer the software update, but also provide a settlement of $1,000 per car, based on the loss of performance.

    1. I agree! Given the anticipated loss in resale value, it may have to be more than $1000. And because US NOx limits are stricter than elsewhere, it will probably require more than the software fix. Meaning, we will have to wait longer for a resolution.


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