Paying the Piper(s)

It looks like the auto industry is making up for its supposed irony deficiency over the past few years. Thirty years ago, we had never seen such a push for vehicles to become more environmentally-friendly. In the 1960s, no celebrity would have been caught dead in a so-called “economy car”, yet the Prius has become somewhat of a Hollywood icon. Even in the mid-1990s, the biggest automotive company in the world couldn’t find success with the electric car, but a rogue start-up company in the Silicon Valley was able to take the automotive industry by storm with one. V12s are disappearing, and turbochargers are becoming the rule, rather than the exception, in mainstream automobiles.

The perceived “green shift”, as I like to call it, seems to be affecting every single facet of the car world. V12s are becoming as rare as non-VTEC Honda jokes. Naturally-aspirated sports cars (even Ferraris) are disappearing like the American middle-class. The bedroom-wall poster supercars that our kids will drool over will be hybrids. And Aston Martin was so desperate to meet emissions standards that they briefly offered a $60K Toyota iQ city car for sale. The lengths to which automakers have gone to comply with the government have been profound, extensive, and even farcical.

Of course, we are on CarThrottle because, by and large, we like driving fast. But there is yet another sector of the car-buying public that carmakers have been fighting tooth-and-nail to compete with: those who care as much about cars as what I care about American Idol (hint: zero).

And they are about to play an interesting role in the dirty game of scruples being played in the automotive world.
Why do I say this? Ask Volkswagen. Or Mitsubishi. And probably every single other mass-producing car maker in the world. The pool of mileage-conscious buyers is growing like a population of rabbits. And there are huge consequences to losing the market share therein. These consequences are so large that it’s apparently worthwhile to try and deceive the transnational population, and break the emissions laws of almost all of the world’s nations without being detected by the world’s most sophisticated technology.

And it’s not like this was a simple quick-fix that Volkswagen developed in a hasty attempt to dodge some new regulations. Different sources claim that Audi had the technology developed as early as the 1990s, others claim that Volkswagen had a PowerPoint presentation (featuring the technology) developed in 2006. Combine with the fact that Mitsubishi has just been caught manipulating and inflating fuel consumption ratings, and it’s clear that the auto industry has some clear contempt with emissions regulations.

A chart of emissions taxes in the U.K.

A chart of emissions taxes in the U.K.

As a student of economics, I have long been doubtful of the efficacy of emissions standards. Clearly, it’s worth it for companies to try and cheat them. And, as long as nobody gets caught or punished, everybody is theoretically a winner. We all thought the VW “Clean Diesel” was a true alternative to the Toyota Prius. This rational ignorance earned Volkswagen a few meritorious buyers, wooed over by the relatively fun-to-drive nature of the diesel powertrain. Until 2015, these buyers were perfectly content. As were, presumably, Mitsubishi drivers who failed to independently assess their fuel economy figures; as Mitsubishi was recently caught inflating their fuel consumption ratings. This is ‘ignorance is bliss’ at its finest.

Let’s face it: carmakers lied to our faces. And this will probably continue for years to come. And it’s become even more clear that these companies give far less of a damn about the world we live in than we could have ever imagined.
But now that the dirty laundry is out and the chickens have come home to roost, one burning question remains to be answered. Who pays for this blatant disregard to the environment, and how?

Let’s be clear: I am not a hemp-wearing, Kumbaya-singing, save the whales, hippie-type environmentalist. I am not a faithful Whole Foods shopper, nor am I a vegan. But I do care about our environment. I would like the air I breathe to be reasonably clean. It would be nice not to have my white shirt turn black from pollution. It would also be nice to have trees, and fish, and polar bears, and clean water to drink. I would also like it if New York City and Brighton were not underwater. And I feel, that, at least to some extent, so do you.

In order for this to happen, the rather-clichéd steps we have to take must be done by everyone. I’m not saying that we have to get rid of all cars. But I am saying that we need to reach some sort of socially-efficient level of pollution; one that balances the benefits of a clean environment with the benefits of us burning fossil fuels. That’s what emissions taxes and standards are meant to achieve. And there are very real physical consequences of not following these standards. Environmental consequences that we all pay for, whether or not we even drive a car. Therefore, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi haven’t just committed fraud against their customers, they have screwed us all over, too.

We all ought to be concerned with what happens to the people responsible for these unscrupulous acts of deceit. I think that people should be sent to jail. I believe that individuals should be held personally accountable. I think they ought to be given the same punishment as I would get for dumping a barrel of arsenic into the Thames River. But I highly doubt that the disgruntled CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, will ever see a day in jail. Nor will anybody that actually invented the cheat device, or the person who gave the device the green light. The cynical side of me tells me that the U.S. government will give them the Wall Street treatment—fine the hell out of Volkswagen, and let the corporate big-wigs go scot-free.

This prospect really bothers me. I still drive my Volkswagen TDI, but I am at the very least aware of its liability on the environment. In reality, the effect of VW diesels on the environment at large is insignificant in comparison to global transportation measures that we have no control over. Really, I view the Volkswagen fiasco as more of a matter of principle. Are there more carmakers playing this game of cat-and-mouse? More than likely. Therefore, we need to establish a meaningful precedent for punishing these people (who I believe are criminals, to be frank) in a way that reflects our best interests as a society. Lest we ensure this happens, and he who pays the piper is not calling the tune.