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In Wake of the VW Scandal, Elon Musk Calls for Random Emissions Testing

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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There is no respite for a company that has admitted it has rigged as many as 11 million of its vehicles, so the criticism and woes keep piling on Volkswagen. Criminal inquiries and lawsuits are already underway, and even before the fines and litigation costs add up, the German automaker will have the expensive task of completing what it says is a promise to retrofit cars that were installed with “defeat device” software.

So what happens to emissions testing, a process many automobile owners endure annually, which contribute millions to the states’ coffers?

According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the solution is simple: random emissions testing on cars when they are on the road, not in an auto service center’s garage.

"The obvious move is to pick cars at random and then test the emissions in transit,” Musk recently told reporters during a business trip to the Netherlands, where he attended the inauguration of Tesla’s first factory in Europe.

While Volkswagen’s revelations have generated plenty of anger, Musk almost appears to have empathy for the world’s largest automaker. “What Volkswagen is really showing is that we’ve reached the limit of what’s possible with diesel and gasoline, said Musk in a quote widely circulated by major media and blogs. “The time has come to move to a new generation of technology.” How random emissions testing would work, however, was left unexplained by Musk.

Musk, however, may have a point. Diesel car manufacturers have long been frustrated by what they see as the excesses of regulators, which most likely could have led to Volkswagen’s deception and desperation. Manufacturers such as Volkswagen have touted their “clean diesel” models for a long time, and point to studies that show diesel cars have improved remarkably in performance over the past few years. But while automakers have pointed out to increased efficiency, organizations including the Union of Concerned Scientists have noted that when it comes to performance, diesel still is as carbon-intensive as gasoline, if not even more so. Diesel is known for its fuel efficiency -- a gallon or liter of diesel packs in more energy than the equivalent amount of gasoline -- but that doesn't mean its' carbon-free. There is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, an overall average of 5 percent--and almost no difference in total oil consumption. And here in the U.S., the world’s largest car market, consumers still have not warmed up to diesel-powered automobiles. Performance, on the road or on the environment, has not swayed them, and now, they definitely not be swayed for the foreseeable future.

The perception of diesel’s fuel economy is one reason why such cars are still popular across the pond in Europe. But that may not be for long as the Volkswagen saga still dominates the press wires and the attention of bureaucrats. Switzerland, for example, is banning the sale of Volkswagen models known to have been fitted with the defeat device software. European consumers may be spooked by Volkswagen’s actions for a long time. So could the answer be electric cars?

Whether the emissions scandal opens more doors for electric cars remains to be seen. That is what Musk inferred during his banter with reporters during his European trip. While electric vehicles have improved remarkably in performance and design the last few years, they still face a long road to mainstream acceptance. But that is not to say Volkswagen could not redeem itself with an electric vehicle that wows consumers and investors. Despite all the naysayers, new EVs keep rolling off the assembly line and into auto shows. Even Apple has much ballyhooed plans to release an electric vehicle by 2019. The clouds over Volkswagen and the auto industry loom large, but there may be more of a silver lining than many of us expect.

Image credit: Maurizio Pesce

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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