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Anti-diesel hysteria emulates witch hunts in Salem, MA

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This text is a continuation of the Volkswagen story.

Petrol engines and diesel engines are comparably important. In the U.S., diesel isn't too popular but in Europe, the percentage of diesel engines in newly sold vehicles has actually surpassed 50%. The fuel economy of the diesel engines has traditionally been better (you may see lots of 2-liter diesel cars that run on less then 4.5 liters per km); but the diesel cars end up being a bit more expensive. Petrol and diesel engines have comparable bodies of supporters, however.

Environmentally, the two groups of engines are roughly similar but the details are very different. Diesel engines produce – and the producers have to care about – particulate and NOx emissions. NOx is harmful to the human health, especially lungs. As far as I can say, the most important measurements are the measurements of the NOx concentration at the most contaminated places of our cities. We know that the NOx concentrations have dropped considerably in recent decades.




Volkswagen has been caught as using the most widespread trick to circumvent some regulation that the history has seen so far. Years ago, Caterpiller, Renault, Volvo, Honda, and Ford were caught cheating by the EPA, too. None of those tricks has been as widespread among the companies' products as the Volkswagen trick, however.




Most diesel cars produced by (almost?) all the Volkswagen Group companies – Volkswagen, Audi, Škoda, ... – and sold between 2009 and 2013 (and some others) have been enhanced by the software feature that is the root of the ongoing controversy.

This controversy has led to a brutal decrease of the price of the VW stock; resignation of the CEO; and many other things. The EPA threatens to demand a huge fine comparable to $18 billion as well as the duty to "fix" all the cars.

Some radical loons and egotists are going even further. Elon Musk has screamed that "time is up for fossil fuels". One should ask whether these slogans don't have something to do with the profitability of his otherwise uncompetitive products. Jerks like that existentially depend on regulation, nepotism, protection by politicians and people who have gathered much more power than they deserve, and their selective attacks on his competition.

A Texas county has sued VW, demanding something like a quadrillion dollars from the company. What does the arrogant Texan savage behind this stunt think about himself? How was he actually affected? Show me how the company has caused a quadrillion of dollars in damages to himself or his county. You won't find anything. Their demands are as absurd as if I demanded a quadrillion dollars from the Texas county because someone in the city hall had an extramarital sexual intercourse. These stunts are nothing else than the demonstration of the Pol Pot-style arrogance of power. Relatively to the skillful engineers in VW, the Texan apparatchik who has invented this frivolous lawsuit is a cubic meter of pollution himself.

And I could enumerate lots of diverse nuts who want to destroy Volkswagen, ban all diesel engines in a county, country, continent, or galaxy, dismiss all products Made In Germany, or end the industrial civilization because of those events. Which events? What has actually happened? Almost nothing.

There exists a totally natural and sensible perspective from which Volkswagen hasn't done anything illegal at all. They were selling "clean diesel cars". The word "clean" means
while the motor is operating, the emissions of NOx may be measured to be below some [unbelievably low threshold].
And this claim was true. To find out the emissions of NOx, to make the existence of this quantity physically meaningful, you need to make a measurement. I have stressed this point in every other blog post about the foundations of quantum mechanics. If you are as careful as quantum mechanics demands, you agree that the emissions can't be separated from a particular measurement. The result depends on what measurement is being made and how it's being made. The act of measurement creates the outcome.

With a little bit of exaggeration, everyone who is anti-Volkswagen in this controversy is an anti-quantum zealot. ;-)

And Volkswagen has cleverly exploited this subtlety. It has managed to create a diesel engine that was capable of achieving truly low NOx emissions when this observable was being measured. However, when it's not being measured, the motor has other things to optimize. It wants to give the driver good acceleration, maximum speed, fuel economy, and other things that are more important than the low NOx emissions, especially if you're driving somewhere in the middle of the countryside where NOx doesn't hurt at all and where it's quickly removed from the air.

That's what they did. By evaluating the data about the slope, acceleration, open door etc. etc., they could determine whether an emission test was underway. Whenever it was underway, special arrangements were made in the engine to lower the emissions even if that made other parameters worse. This emissions optimization is turned off when you drive your car normally.

If you feel certain that this optimization of the motor for different situations is illegal, I would love to see the actual law that forbids something like that. At the end, it is spectacularly obvious that sensible laws cannot ban the optimization of the engine as a function of the conditions. Good motors are surely doing such things all the time and as engines are going to get even smarter in the future, they will be doing it increasingly often, increasingly cleverly, and increasingly extensively.

In other words, if you suggest that there is a law somewhere that
every engine has to behave in the same way in the lab measuring emissions as it behaves in Nature,
I may be pretty sure that this conjecture of yours is wrong. And if such a law existed somewhere, it would be a very bad law that prevents the cars from behaving optimally. Such a law would ban lots of adjustments that are demonstrably beneficial – and agreed to be beneficial by almost everyone. The lab simply isn't the same environment as a generic ride in the countryside. A clever car takes the different parameters into account when it tries to guarantee the optimum conditions for driving (and breathing etc.). You may say that "a certain kind of optimization" should be illegal but I think you won't be able to define this "refined rule" in such a way that it could fully prevent a carmaker from inventing and applying a similar trick.

So the very claim that Volkswagen was "cheating" is just a matter of a controversial interpretation, not an objective fact. This kind of "cheating" isn't really much different from the "optimization of tax returns" that almost every company does and this behavior has to be considered legally OK. Obviously, these legal tricks are ultimately "circumventing the spirit of the law" but that's a problem of the law, not a problem of those who manage to exploit the loopholes.

In fact, we can convincingly argue that the inability to catch the difference between the emissions in the lab and emissions in the countryside is a fault that the EPA, and not the carmaker, should be blamed for. The EPA is expected to protect the clean air outside – in the cities and Nature. To do so, they created (or ordered to create) labs where the emissions are being measured. And they use the data to deduce something about the behavior of the engines in Nature or cities (where the emissions may actually matter).

However, this "deduction" is just sloppy. It's a bad work done by the EPA. If they did their job correctly, they would measure the emissions of the car in the real-world conditions, in a way that becomes indistinguishable from the real-world driving. However, they picked a measurement in conditions that are obviously distinguishable from the real-world behavior. And that's why the extrapolation of the lab measurements to the real-world driving is sloppy and, in this Volkswagen case, dramatically inaccurate. But it's really the EPA, and not Volkswagen, that has extrapolated the numbers in this bad way. Volkswagen has never been promising that the engine is doing exactly the same thing everywhere. It's the EPA that implicitly makes this claim when it pretends that its lab tests are enough to protect the air.

Another issue are the calls to "fix all the engines". The anti-Volkswagen activists in this controversy pretend that this "fix" is something that the drivers surely want. We have over ten million drivers with these cars. They are expected to spend a day or more, go somewhere, and wait for their four-wheeled pets to be "repaired". What does it mean for them to be "repaired"? It means that they will be downgraded to the engines with the same behavior that we may observe in the emissions labs. While driving in the real world, after the car is "repaired", the emissions will be lower but the driving will be less powerful, the maximum speed will be lowered, or the fuel economy will be worse, and so on.

Please: Tell me how many drivers actually want their diesel car to be "repaired" in this way? For almost all the drivers, the emissions are irrelevant as long as they are low enough to comply with the law. Be sure that at least in Europe, the limits are reasonable enough for all the VW cars produced in the recent 10 years to be legally OK. These engines are much cleaner than the engines sold a decade earlier – which are still compatible with the law. So why should a sane driver who actually uses the car to drive – not to boast about the low emissions – be trying to "repair" (which means "downgrade") his or her car in this way?

If the allowed NOx limits in the U.S. are smaller by an order of magnitude, it's clearly a defect of the unrealistic U.S. law, not a defect of a particular carmaker, because such a law basically bans nicely behaving diesel cars.

A driver could say that the low emissions were important for him or her, and a reason why he or she picked the clean diesel car from VW. Great: those drivers may think that they were scammed because they understood that the number for the emissions are accurate in the real world, not just in the lab. They were also led to believe that the low emissions are compatible with the other virtues – high speed, acceleration, good fuel economy. How big a difference does the revelation about the higher emissions make? Quantify how much this difference costs. You have emitted more NOx than you thought. OK, did it make someone sick? Did someone die because of that? How many people could have died because you emitted more NOx than you were expecting? You have emitted as much NOx as pretty much any average diesel engine produced in the same year?

The people who want to turn this into a huge scandal are completely ignoring how many innocent people they want to "punish". This trick may have been known to a few managers at some level of VW, maybe the CEO and a few bosses. Maybe someone in the middle management – someone responsible for the success of the VW diesel cars – was under huge pressure to turn VW into the greatest car company in the world, as planned, or reduce the emissions to some random insanely low numbers that someone obsessed with the adjective "clean" made up and that were not realistic. Those could have been punished because they have arguably cheated – and demonstrably damaged the company – but I have argued that their behavior is only criminal from a certain perspective – and totally defensibly rational and constructive from other viewpoints. But there have been all the workers who have had no idea about that. Tons of dealers who may suffer now. Tons of business partners of these companies. Over 10 million drivers who start to be demanded to "downgrade" their cars. All of this is absolutely insane.

Lots of other companies producing diesel engines may have been doing similar things. It's hard to believe that the emissions of comparable engines would be so much smaller under similar conditions.

The actual lesson we should learn from these revelations is that the numbers indicating the NOx emissions from a car are untrustworthy. We should treat all them as suspicious and forget about regulating these numbers completely, at least for a few years before all the actual numbers become clear. Instead, we should regulate the NOx concentrations at particular places in our cities because that's what actually matters.

Also, we should calm down the people who are obsessed with low emissions – people both in the government and in the company (probably its P.R. department) – because unrealistically low emissions targets that some people have "demanded" or "wanted to promise" are the actual primary reason why VW has behaved in this way.

The measurements of NOx in cities reliably show that we're not being killed by NOx emissions, at least not too quickly. This is what matters. The air is cleaner, by orders of magnitude, than what it was when I was a kid. That's why the diesel engines, even though they are a majority of new engines in Europe, aren't too bad. Anyone who abuses this incident about the controversial or clever VW trick as a weapon to fight against all diesel motors or all VW products or all fossil fuels or the whole industrial civilization is a dishonest, perhaps self-serving, demagogue and his attempts to prosecute those associated with the diesel motors is an irrational and indefensible witch hunt.

Despite the revelations, nothing essential has changed about the functioning and character of diesel cars, their overall emissions, or realistic well-informed people's knowledge about those emissions. The only thing that has changed is that like in so many other cases, some numbers that sounded too good to be true weren't actually true (when interpreted too universally). People who have become sick or died because of the higher emissions should be compensated – perhaps with some bonus. If someone else has suffered in a way I can't imagine, he should win a lawsuit, too. But the compensation from Volkswagen shouldn't be several orders of magnitude higher than any conceivable damages. The damages are basically zero and whether the Volkswagen optimization of the emissions was contradicting some abstract law is a question with no unequivocal answer.

The title talks about a comparison with the witch hunts. I have only been to Salem twice in my life. Once, we went to the museums of the witch hunts. I have listened carefully. The ongoing harassment of Volkswagen seems very similar to the trials against the witches because the witches have been blamed for lots of big things they had nothing to do about and their guilt had been inflated by many orders of magnitude – so that they could have been executed. A sane person must have always seen that they hadn't actually done anything seriously bad. In spite of that, between 35,000 and 100,000 people were executed as witches between 1450 and 1750.

Maybe the witches' behavior contradicted some conventions etc. – some of them did do something like witchcraft which is at least nutty, indeed – but the "ultimate punishment" was absolutely inadequate. The same comments apply to Volkswagen. Maybe someone should be punished for controversially making the engines look cleaner than they normally were. Or for turning these features off during normal driving (I think that the "right" fix is obviously to admit that the relevant, real-world emissions weren't as low as shown in the labs, and allow the cars behave as they do in the real world.) But this wrongdoing is worth the job and/or a few annual salaries for several people – at most millions of dollars. It is simply not worth over ten billion dollars and anyone who tries to bring the Volkswagen controversy to these levels is escalating the issue in the same, unlimited, mindless way as the hysteria that led to the execution of all the witches. Maybe the environmentalists aren't killing women these days. But they are doing everything they can to kill or dramatically weaken a company on which hundreds of thousands of innocent workers materially depend on, not to mention over 10 million of pretty satisfied (and, in the case of Škoda, happy) drivers.

And it is very close to the insane overreaction that has defined the witch hunt era. Such an excessive witch hunt has two sides each of which seems unacceptable to me. First, tons of innocent people and several people who didn't do "such a terrible thing" are made to suffer inadequately; and second, certain people, companies, and counties that are not victims at all and that haven't been tangibly managed declare themselves to be the "winning side" and they sometimes want to make a huge profit out of this hysteria. It's wrong, wrong, wrong.

A witch wasn't necessarily the purest babe in the town. She could have lied to others and done some other things. But those things are absolutely negligible if the real issues becomes someone's proposal to execute her for witchcraft. In that case, I instantly become a defender of any witch against the murderers. And that's the primary perspective that I adopt in the dispute between Volkswagen and its self-anointed liquidators – and every sensible person who doesn't overlook the forest for the trees should adopt the same attitude.

Other responses

The world's most famous car TV host Jeremy Clarkson described the "scandal" concisely in The Sunday Times: "Volkswagen looked at a set of arbitrary figures that had been dreamt up by a bunch of ill-informed, woolly-headed government officials and chose to ignore them. We are not talking about thalidomide here. Or Bhopal. It’s just a bit of good-natured rule-bending, and we all do that." Also, he pointed out that the whole regulation of personal diesel cars' NOx emissions is "rubbish" because road transport only accounts for 40% of man-made NOx and almost all of the 40% is from lorries and buses, anyway. VW officials should stop wringing their hands and go on attack against the eco-mentalists and soft-in-the-head governments.

From the beginning, almost all the Nigerian users of VW products supported the company and complained about the witch hunt and the forced resignation of the CEO, citing outrageous irregularities in the approach of the U.S. government bureaus. If you're a pro-eco-mental American, I don't recommend you to dare to insert your foot on the African continent.

BTW Czech pundit Jan Bartoň agrees that this Dieselgate is primarily a scandal about the excessive regulation (unrealistic "clean" expectations in the laws and technical norms) and he presents another analogy, one with doping. Decades ago, the best shot-put athletes threw the balls well over 20 meters. Everyone wanted them to be even better. We don't see these great tosses [I have no idea about the correct English jargon of this field] today simply because all those excessively long tosses turned out to be due to anabolic substances. People and cars manage to do what they can manage to do and if you press them to do much better, be sure that they're forced to find some controversial methods and tricks to fulfill the task. And most of the norms (the numbers) are adopted by apparatchiks who don't even know engine hides in the car that drives them. It is a pretty much unavoidable path to tricks.

Ms Markéta Šichtářová, the CEO of Next Finance and a blogger who has over 13,000 readers of her average blog post (and her full name happens to be similar to the scholar who wrote a diploma thesis about my paternal grandfather, a painter), stresses that Volkswagen has been kicked to the knees by the green lunatics. She analyzes someone's efforts to make the scandal big – for fun, she assumes that someone claims that the trouble of Volkswagen are analogous to those of Enron before it went bust. However, the situations are totally different, she stresses, because Volkswagen is intrinsically in no financial problems at all. Even its credibility among consumers is unaffected; if VW cars had a glitch with brakes, the consumers would care vastly more than they do now. The problem of VW is "moral" and only linked to the VW efforts to circumvent the existing pressures on "green policies". The ICCT only got a stick to beat VW because the green lunatics wanted it this way. She mentions how much better a world would be without the naive or hypocritical green idiots who are only riding bikes for moral reasons but take a flight to a climate conference twice a year and produce more emissions than a VW SUV owner in years.

In his text VolksFraud, D-Fens says that because of this green regulation, everyone has been cheating for many years and who wasn't cheating sufficiently was fined. The author tries to locate the "power groups" behind the scandal and he gets to ICCT (see above) with links to Climate Works, the Ford Foundation, and others. It's being discussed which insiders could have decided to betray VW and why etc. Also, predictions are made where it will lead: governments will get stronger, the whole diesel technology will be at risk, VW will be ordered to "fix" the cars in the U.S., no one in the EU will dare to order VW to recall a single car, the market position of VW will only weaken temporarily, and finally, the confidence of the European and especially Eastern European consumer in the VW brand won't be affected at all.

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