Friday, May 19, 2017

Volkswagen Dieselgate is just the beginning

Olivier Francois, head of the Fiat brand, unveiling the 2016 Fiat 500X in 2014 in Los Angeles. In a new study, researchers found evidence of a device used to cheat in emissions tests in the model.
             Joe Wilssens/Chrysler Group L.L.C., via PR Newswire        
Another revelation on dieselgate?! Read all about Fiat and Chrysler here.

Diesel vs. gas engines. If you're an American, who's rented a car in Europe, you're probably confused why the US doesn't use diesel engines. It's not odd for diesel engines in Europe to get something around 60-80 miles per gallon. Much better than even the good old Prius, and usually they have a lot more get up and go than your average car in the US. So why then don't we use diesel engines as much in the US?

One of the biggest reasons the cars don't align in the two behemoth auto making areas of the world is that creating a difference between diesel and gas engine cars was a way to create trade wars and circumvent WTO and GATT rules without actually ever engaging the rules themselves. The wars started back in the 70's-80's when there was a big push by environmentalists to clean up emissions by American car makers. This also happened to coincidentally coincide with the rise in oil prices. Lawmakers pushed the auto industry in the US to build higher quality cars, that got better gas mileage and created lower emissions. Initially, there was a big dispute in the GATT between the US and the the European Communities over whether this was a violation of trade rules. The end ruling was it was not. If Europe wanted to continue to be competitive in the car industry, they would have to up their standards as well.

It wasn't long after this, in the early 90's that some significant articles were published proving that diesel engines created significantly less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than an average gas engine vehicle as long as a car was using a particulate filter.

Now these filters were basically the only way diesel engines could ever really compete with gas engines as even though diesel produces less CO2 emissions. It produces many other, very dangerous gases that were also greenhouse gases, but more importantly, they were significantly harmful to the environment. The filter made the diesel engine competitive, however, as it was supposed to remove nearly 99% of all the harmful chemicals for just a small reduction in fuel economy.

That sounds great on paper, but over the years researchers found more and more people were removing their particulate filters to get better gas mileage as gas prices rose. Researchers also discovered that a lot of the filters stopped working after just a couple years of use. The EU responded by creating better emissions tests that each car would have to pass every year or so, similar to the testing done in certain states in the US.

Now we speed ahead to the 2010's and Dieselgate, when a paper released a few years ago began to really rock the diesel engine boat. The paper went back over some of the initial research on diesel engines and emissions and concluded that the initial research had missed the mark. Diesel engines actually produced as much and in some cases more greenhouse gases per mile as did gas engines. Of course, there is still a lot of debate on this subject as it is hard to measure the emissions from start to finish as diesel still takes less energy to refine, so in the end diesel engines probably still have a small, but perhaps, insignificant advantage.

It's insignificant precisely because of the new dieselgate scandal. Researchers discovered that Volkswagen cars and now Fiats and Chryslers (and I would be wiling to guess a whole lot of others) actually have algorithms that turn off some of the filter's uses to get better gas mileage after 26 minutes of being on. Why 26 minutes? Because most emissions tests lasted much less than that. So if you thought this whole scandal was about pure gas mileage, think again! This is about your health. It's about particulate filters just turning off so that the diesel industry can be a little more competitive.

But the bigger policy issue at the end of the day is trade and jobs. The EU hitched its wagon to diesel. It can choose to change its policy, which would make its car industry uncompetitive, or try to fix it and make it uncompetitive as well. Darned if they don't, danged if they do. So I expect very little will change, but now you know a little more of how trade policy can affect your health. And why there really is a US/EU gas and diesel divide.

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