Das Fool

In 1972, the British headbanger band Status Quo sang ‘Would you like to ride my Deutsche car?

Back then, Greenhouse was somewhere you grew orchids, and Gas something you got from beans.

The United States emerged from the 60s and 70s tainted by Silent Spring and Love Canal. Like Charles Atlas, environmental groups morphed from seven-stone weakling into muscle man—no more kicking sand in their face.

Concerns became planetary, from acid rain to global warming—enter emission controls. In the West, factory smokestacks reduced their belching, partly because production shifted to developing nations—there, environmentalists were few, people were hungry, and politicians were (as ever) greedy.

In parallel, Hitler’s dream of a people’s car, a Volks Wagen, resulted in the VW Beetle, product of the incredible brain of Ferdinand Porsche—a man who was a Czech national until World War II, when Uncle Adolph persuaded him to take German citizenship because he considered Czechs sub-human.

In the 1970s the Golf became VW’s latest and greatest, and despite the fact that the U.S. is golf mad, the men from Wolfsburg saw fit to brand the car in the States as the VW Rabbit.

When the curtain fell, VW took over Skoda, and at some point Spain’s SEAT, which had manufactured Fiats, became VW for the austerity belt.

In China, VW’s presence is huge. In the mid-1990’s the Santana model had a huge penetration in the taxi market, and Audis were reserved for the fat cats. In between, VW minibuses were everywhere.

As environmental awareness grew, so did the policy of companies kowtowing to green consumers. But the sad fact is that these consumers are often green only on the outside—a bit like the stories about fair trade coffee, or chocolate—nice to read on the packet, and maybe worth a couple of extra cents, but for the mainstream Western consumer, the price point is key.

A Beetle drives by on a French road last weekend, blissfully ignorant of both emissions. In those days, the only software in the car were the seats.

A Beetle drives by on a French road last weekend, blissfully oblivious to emissions. In those days, the only software in the car were the seats.

From fisheries to automotive, from bottled water to cellphones, there’s always something to tickle your greenness—even if it’s just the fact that the booklet is printed on acid-free, recycled paper.

I always smile at this game where companies save money but don’t pass any of it on. Every hotel I stay in, from China to Charleston, proclaims its environmental credentials: re-use towels, leave them in the bath, hang them on the bed, twist’em round your head, save the planet. ATMs tell me not to print statements, the onus is on me, save the planet.

And yet every time a towel is (quite rightly) re-used, the hotel saves money. When I don’t ask for a printout, or shift to e-banking, the bank saves money. When I get a boarding pass on my cellphone, the airline saves money. Do you see any of that saving? er… no, you are compensated on a far higher level: they save money, but you save the planet.

So it comes to pass that VW, its satellite firms, and very possibly a bunch of others who are keeping their cylinder head well below the manifold, have sold all of us superheroes an environmental bill of goods.

The trick of using software to fool emissions testing is not a stunning novelty—it was amply documented in the U.S. for trucks back in 1999! The EPA busted a bunch of manufacturers (only one engine manufacturer, Navistar, was playing by the rules) for doing the exact same thing: the machine detected it was being tested (by the wheel movement, since this is not a road test), and understood that although its arms flapped, it wasn’t flying.

Cheating in tests is no great feat—students and professional cyclists have been at it for years. Ah, but now is the time for recriminations, self-flagellation, and other forms of punishment—let’s face it, no one does that better than the Germans.

On the board of VW sits the economy minister of Lower Saxony, a man with the wonderfully apt name of Olaf Lies. Whether he does or not is above my pay grade, but he is on record that criminal charges should be brought where appropriate.

So, superheroes and saints, fear not: VW will get its just desserts. But while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about a teeny thing called DPF. No, it’s not the Brazilian Federal Police Department, but an integral part of your exhaust system, should you be the proud owner of a diesel car built in the last decade—the Diesel Particulate Filter.

The US site TruckTrend sets the tone quite nicely. DPF: The time bomb under your diesel. Those particles are something we’d prefer to keep out of the air that we breathe, but there’s a hitch—well, a double hitch, really.

The first is that any filter tends to slow things down, the second one is this particular one can cost you a packet. The particles accumulate, and after a certain point the engine burns them off. In order to do so, the car acts like a mini-incinerator, activated under two conditions—there are enough particles in the filter, and the car is running at a high temperature, typically after a fifteen minute drive.

The big hitch is that if you use your diesel for an urban run, you may not reach that temperature, at which point all sorts of mayhem happens—we’re talking four figure mayhem, repair bills of the order of five thousand dollars and up.

Unsurprisingly, there is a burgeoning industry focused on removing the filters. A radio station in the Lisbon area mentioned it this week, it’s a common procedure here; but I have found in my wanderings that anything Portugal cheats at, other nations cheat at on a far grander scale—earthlings, you are not alone.

In Canada, DPF removal for trucks is well-established.  Incidentally, I’ve found myself delving into a bunch of trucking stuff over the past weeks—it all started when I picked up a copy of Truckstop News in Northern Ireland. Their website is transportcafe.com (what a great name), which is focused on themes such as motor oils and big breakfasts, a combination guaranteed to keep the trucking ecosystem on the move. Yes, it’s here that you’ll find ads for ‘MAN VS FOOD STYLE OMLETTE (sic) CHALLENGE’, where you will beat the clock to consume a twelve-egg omelette complete with filling and fries.

In the UK, DPF removal ads are everywhere—for all kinds of diesel vehicles. Better mileage, more horsepower. And kicking sand, or in this case particulates, into the face of the guy behind—a red-blooded macho dream.

ECU-FLASH, who bill themselves as ‘engine remapping specialists’, explain that their ‘remapping’ will fool the vehicle inspection. However, the British government has been making a bloody nuisance of itself as usual, and imposed a visual examination of the DPF—any diesel car without one automatically fails its MOT.

I’m guessing that if VW hadn’t done this, Ecocitizen Joe would have had a go at tuning the engine himself to shave a few seconds off the acceleration, and grinned every time he flipped the switch to fool Mr. Government Emissions Man.

I spoke to a couple of garage guys here and there about this—they shrugged, only the dealers and the fleet guys are concerned—they know the regular Joes don’t care.

Bottom line, every company will cheat you when it gets a chance—if you don’t believe that, I’ve got some hotel towels I can sell you.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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