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Interactive Map Shows Volkswagen Scandal’s Impact in California

Words by Leon Kaye


Two months after Volkswagen admitted its clean diesel cars were rigged with software to falsify nitrogen oxide levels, the company continues to endure the fallout from the emissions scandal. Volkswagen’s overall financial performance, while hardly stellar, is reflective of the overall global stagnation in automobile sales, but clearly there are signs of worry as the company is losing market share.

The optics continue to look bad. Buyers of VW’s cars in the United Kingdom are now required to sign a disclaimer that warns drivers that the fuel economy ratings on their purchases may not be as good as originally claimed—a decision that hardly builds confidence a brand significantly tarnished by the “defeat device” fiasco. Across the pond in California, one of VW’s largest markets, a new interactive map offers a visualization of the effects stemming from the company’s shenanigans, just days before the automaker is set to present a plan to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to compensate consumers who over the past several years purchased the models under question.

Developed by the data analytics firm Kevala, this map, released by the clean energy advocacy group California Clean Energy Fund, or CalCEF, attempts to show how air pollution generated by the VW cars in question has had a detrimental impact on poor and minority neighborhoods in metropolitan areas. By pinpointing the location of all diesel cars, typical commuting patterns, poverty rates, pollution data and the location of electric charging vehicle stations, CalCEF says it wishes to go beyond showing the effects of Volkswagen’s alleged malfeasance. According to Danny Kennedy, CalCEF’s managing director, the automaker actually has an opportunity to amend its past behavior by working to expand access to cleaner forms of transportation in poorer communities.

There is precedent for such action. During the winter of 2000-2001 in California, electricity rates skyrocketed without rhyme or reason across the state. Firms such as Enron and Dynegy were later accused of manipulating electricity prices, and eventually an offshoot of Dynegy, NRG Energy, settled with Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. In addition to offering utility ratepayer financial relief, NRG has promised to install hundreds of electric charging stations across the state.

But as CalCEF points out, the vast majority of these charging stations are in affluent neighborhoods and business centers, not in the communities that suffer the most from higher air pollution rates. The solution offered by CalCEF, therefore, is for VW to go beyond cash settlements and new infrastructure for next-generation vehicles. Tax incentives, financing and charging stations should also be offered in such neighborhoods in order to improve air quality and mobility, insists CalCEF and its allies.

What is not clear, however, is whether such programs can make a difference in these areas—and if electric vehicles or cleaner forms of transport will still be affordable, or even wanted, no matter how generous Volkswagen will be once terms of any such settlement are announced. Offering charging stations in poor neighborhoods may sound enlightening until it becomes evident that they are rarely, if ever, used. And whether Volkswagen would be willing to pay for improved and cleaner public transportation infrastructure is another question that has got to be answered.

Image credit: Kevala

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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