Volkswagen is still struggling to move past the emissions-software scandal that has plagued its reputation for the better part of a year. Ever since the news officially broke that an array of its diesel passenger cars were outfitted with deceptive software, VW's reputation has been pretty much at bottom ratings.
It's not like the company hasn't tried to regain public trust: To disgruntled consumers who bought one of the affected cars, it's offered a combo of Visa cards and credit at dealerships. To dealers stuck with stock frozen by the publicity, the company offered to buy back used vehicles at full price. And in response to hundreds of class-action suits coming up on the horizon, the company recently suggested that it may be willing to buy back those vehicles that can't be fixed. Fixing, VW lawyer Robert Giuffra explained in court in January, requires coming up with new software, and that may still be a long way off -- too long for some earlier vehicles caught in the debacle.
"The question ... is one of timing," Guiffra stated in the court hearing.
The idea of buying back cars wasn't new. It was initially proposed to the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resource Board in early January, but was turned down by CARB. It wasn't embraced by the EPA, either, which said that the litigation and hefty federal and state fines that were levied against the company was all part of "bringing VW to justice." What that process would entail, however, the EPA didn't say.
But according to a recent story from Reuters (which quoted the German publication, Welt am Sonntag), the EPA may be finally closing in on a deal. And no, it doesn't appear to include more fines. If anything, it's evidence that the EPA may have its ear close to industry sources and is willing to strike a deal that could conceivably benefit both the U.S. auto industry and the administration's ongoing effort to control carbon emissions on the road.
The idea (which neither the EPA or VW is willing to confirm yet), is that Volkswagen would ramp up its production of electric vehicles and make its Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant a possible hub for EV production. The company would also help create a suitable network of charging stations across the country -- a win-win addition for a company that has the resources to build EV vehicles.
Pressed for information, a VW spokesperson would only say, "Talks with the EPA are ongoing and we are not commenting on the contents and state of the negotiations."
The concept, sketchy as it is at this point, has some interesting similarities to a suggestion that Elon Musk made last year when environmental agencies were initially negotiating with VW. Musk and his associates -- a lengthy list of tech and environmental experts -- suggested a multi-step process that could entice/require VW to apply its considerable talents toward coming up with a truly emissions-free vehicle -- one that changes the automotive map. And, in recognition of the fact that a significant share of the emissions-cheating vehicles were purchased in California, (where VW has wracked up state violations), that the company be required to build factories to enhance California's auto industry.
While it's encouraging to think that the EPA may actually consider proposals that don't just amount to more fines, will handing VW an incentive to ramp up its EV stock really solve problems?
Studies have shown that while electric vehicles are a far sight better for carbon emissions, they aren't the end-all when it comes to resolving our environmental problems. And having a "grid" of electric charging stations (something the U.S. needs) would help, but their green legacy goes only so far as the local electric network's source.
"Grid-powered electric cars have carbon emissions four times greater in countries with coal-dominated power generation than in those with low-carbon power supplies," says the environmental research group Shrink that Footprint in its report, Shades of Green: Electric Car Emissions Around the Globe.
While many U.S. cities are converting to greener power generation, the overall environmental efficiency of EVs depend not on the vehicle but on how that power is generated in each state. These days, Tennessee ships its coal to other states rather than using it to provide most of its own electricity. But when it comes to "zero emissions," Tennessee's coal production, and sale to other states, can't help but undercut those accomplishments of EVs.
Which brings us to VW, a company that has for years touted the concept of breaking the mold in its business approaches. Say what you may about the company's diesel scandal, VW's yearning to move outside of the norm and to be recognized for that is part of what brought about the first LEED-certified automotive plant in the U.S., innovations in water conservation in the Chattanooga plant and, most importantly, its ability to help rewrite Tennessee's education certification processes for auto industry professionals.
Offering VW the option to invest more heavily in the EV industry and network seems to be missing the point when it comes to innovation and falling short in our aspirations to move the environmental mark for today's automotive industry.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.