Elon Musk and Activists to VW: Skip Diesel Fixes, Get Serious About Zero Emissions

The Tesla Motors founder and other leaders in the Golden State have a plan for the scandal-plagued automobile manufacturer.
Volkswagen shook Germany's powerful automobile industry with revelations in September 2015 that it had fitted 11 million of its diesel vehicles with software designed to cheat official pollution tests. (Photo: Odd Andersen/Getty Images)
Dec 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s a scandal that’s taken down top executives, shaken consumer confidence, and left owners waiting to find out what will happens to their car. Now, in the aftermath of Volkswagen being busted by the EPA for installing software that lied about vehicle emissions when cars were tested, Elon Musk and a coalition of 41 CEOs and environmental activists have come up with a long-term solution: Instead of forcing VW to fix faulty “clean diesel” vehicles, regulators should make the German company “cure the air, not the cars.”

In an open letter to the head of the California Air Resources Board, Musk and his colleagues suggest that regulators should “release VW from its obligation to fix diesel cars already on the road in California.” (Disclosure: Jeff Skoll, the founder of Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company, is one of the signees.)

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Regulators in the Golden State should instead “direct VW to accelerate greatly its rollout of zero emission vehicles, which by their very nature, have zero emissions and thus present zero opportunities for cheating, and also do not require any enforcement dollars to verify,” the letter reads.

The letter also recommends that instead of Volkswagen being forced to pay up to $35 billion in fines for its deception, the company should be required to use the money it would have ponied up to invest in green technology and build factories that would manufacture zero-emission cars. To achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in California, which would curb climate change, all new cars sold in the state need to be emission-free by 2050.

In September, the EPA’s bombshell revelations found that clean diesel VW cars sold in the U.S. since 2009 have included software that “circumvents EPA emissions standards for certain air pollutants,” a violation of the Clean Air Act.

Engines on the more than 482,000 clean diesel vehicles—including the VW-manufactured Audi A3 and the VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf, and Passat—sold in the U.S. have been spewing out 40 times the smog-causing nitrous oxide the car company said they were. When a clean diesel VW car was taken to a smog check station, the vehicle would go into “cheat mode” and transmit false data that enabled it to pass the test.

Worldwide, 11 million vehicles are equipped with the deceptive software, which put Volkswagen in the crosshairs of protesters at the recent COP21 climate talks in Paris. But, as the letter points out, there’s no specific “emissions-related risk” to drivers of VW cars.

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Since the scandal broke, VW owners have been waiting to find out when they can expect to get the software on their vehicle replaced as part of Volkswagen’s recall process. In November, VW offered anxious U.S.-based owners up to $1,000 each and free roadside assistance for the next three years.

The letter concludes by noting that there’s a precedent for such a counterintuitive solution. “In the industry-wide 1990 diesel truck cheating scandal, the EPA chose not to require an interim recall but instead moved up the deadline for tougher standards to make up the difference. This proposal does the same for VW and ties the solution to a transition to zero emissions vehicles,” the authors wrote.