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A Look Back at the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal - Should I Still Love My SuperBeetle?



This is my car. I drive a 1972 Volkswagen SuperBeetle which I have named “Campbell” since the ambiance of being inside of it is how I would imagine being inside of a soup can. I have been a loyal Volkswagen owner for a while now, but I am also a Humanitarian Engineer from the Colorado School of Mines who loves the planet more than anything and recently learned about the VW Emission Scandal of 2015. Should I still love my Volkswagen SuperBeetle or is it time to move on to a different car manufacturer?
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Volkswagen's “defeat devices,” a software designed to minimize emissions during testing processes, hid that vehicles were producing emissions over 40 times the legal limit when the car was driving. [1] This was a devastating blow to the company’s reputation, and not only did the EPA force Volkswagen to recall 14 models of cars dating back to 2009, but this illegal technology also had a multitude of negative externalities. [2] Not only did Volkswagen have to recall over 80,000 vehicles, but this also negatively impacted the housing market near the VW production plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee and had implications that went back to workers and their families. [3] Was it worth it to VW to get away with producing 40 times the legal limit of emissions for over 6 years with tens of thousands of vehicles? Should there be a ban on environmentally detrimental technologies?
From the Volkswagen company’s perspective, there is a significant amount of pressure to continually advance technology to compete with other car companies, so it makes sense that cheats were taken. As technology develops, every industry must develop proportionally to keep up with market values and expectations if they hope to make any profit. [4] In an era where autonomous and electric vehicles are becoming more commonplace rather than something from a sci-fi movie, it is crucial that every new model of car is up to par. A rapid product development cycle leads to a lower quality product, so is Volkswagen just the victim of a market built on hasty innovation? If such a large and well-known company was able to bypass environmental regulations like this for over half a decade, what other companies are taking shortcuts for monetary gain?
I am an engineer who is studying the social and environmental responsibility of technological advancement, and this was very clearly a violation of basic emissions policy set by the US government, as enforced by the EPA. What sort of engineer knowingly creates a device to cheat emissions tests, knowing it’s illegality? I feel that there should be a basic ethical pathway that first questions why there is an emissions test in the first place before mindlessly developing a device to create more fuel-efficient vehicles that take a toll on the environment. As a part of the human race, shouldn't we all prioritize our greatest shared resource before selfish earning within arbitrary systems we developed ourselves? Greta Thunberg in particular has fought that emissions don't need to be decreased moving forward, they must be decreased immediately to have any impact at all. [5] There is not a global regulation of the limitations of emissions, but maybe there should be. More progress could be made by having multiple government agencies come together to create standards and rules for all. Volkswagen in particular could benefit from putting more of their funding and development towards truly fuel-efficient automobiles. There is already a VW movement towards electric cars, and this may help repair their reputation. [6] There is significant potential for Volkswagen to make positive environmental progress.
Automobile companies are taking advantage of loopholes when it comes to emission regulations, and this must end immediately, with all people shifting to more sustainable vehicles, fuels, or utilizing public transport instead. Technology should not be used as a means to avoid environmental regulations, but rather as a way to retroactively repair the negative impacts humanity has caused to the world and atmosphere.


SOURCES

[1] G. Gates, “How Volkswagen’s ‘Defeat Devices’ Worked,” The New York Times, Oct. 08, 2015. [Online]. Available: How Volkswagen’s ‘Defeat Devices’ Worked (Published 2015)

[2] US EPA, “Learn About Volkswagen Violations | US EPA,” US EPA, Feb. 04, 2019. Learn About Volkswagen Violations | US EPA

[3] H. Kirchhain, J. Mutl, and J. Zietz, “The Impact of Exogenous Shocks on House Prices: the Case of the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal,” The journal of real estate finance and economics, vol. 60, no. 4, pp. 587–610, 2020, doi: 10.1007/s11146-019-09700-4.

[4] “Competition in Automobile Industry Increases as Technology Advances,” M2 Presswire, Normans Media Ltd, 2016.

[2] “Greta Thunberg: Forget 2030 or 2040, we must reduce emissions NOW,” Red, Green, and Blue, Apr. 03, 2021. Greta Thunberg: Forget 2030 or 2040, we must reduce emissions NOW | Red, Green, and Blue (accessed Nov. 07, 2022).

[1] I. Mačaitytė and G. Virbašiūtė, “Volkswagen Emission Scandal and Corporate Social Responsibility – A Case Study,” Business Ethics and Leadership, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 6–13, 2018, doi: 10.21272/bel.2(1).6-13.2018.
 
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