Lessons from Volkswagen Case

Volkswagen emissions scandal cheating software United States diesel cars || Photo courtesy Chris Verwymeren via Flickr Creative Commons

Soon after the outbreak of Volkswagen scandal, it was found out that not only Volkswagen, but also many other, and potentially, all car producers which release diesel cars have the same problem. Their management, who cheated their way around the strict emission limits, eats humble pie at the press conferences. However, all of politicians and environmental activist should accept their part of the responsibility, because they have been enforcing the unrealistic emission limits for a long time and they finally succeeded.

Unrealistic is the key word in this case. Published information mention that the given limits are exceeded 40 times. It is not about the failure to meet the goal by trifling 20-30%, but it is about the failure to meet the goal by 4,000% (!). So, the case is not only about the fraud, but the unrealistic limits, which have caused it. At the time when these highly ambitious limits of allowed air pollution were being passed through, I was a sceptic myself and I asked what happens, if we do not develop new technologies, which will be necessary to fulfill the stricter standards. I remember well, how the supporters of limits had arrogantly claimed that these doubts were unfounded or “sponsored” by car producers. According to the perverted logic, the ambitious standards would become the driving force of the technological progress.

Car producers were caught in the crossfire. One of the armies managed to convert the unrealistic and politically motivated ambitions into a binding law. The second firing squad was led by technological limits. Car producers shouted, explained and argued vainly. Political wishful thinking was converted into the law. Insoluble dilemma was the following: to make a car which would produce less emissions, have the same power and would be cheaper. Unfortunately, car producers solved it their own way. They developed a manipulative software, which got around the limits. In this case, the unrealistic regulation directly motivated car producers to a fraud. Absurdity of the whole situation is the fact that the rule was disobeyed by the Germans, whose respect for the law is very strong.

A moral failure of the car producers’ managements was only the second chapter of the story. The first had been written by environmentalists, civil servants and politicians. Their common sin is the pride of mind and dangerous fanaticism, which does not want to see the outside world. There exists an array of objective limits such as natural laws, available economic resources and present technological solutions. These are borders that divide the world into what is currently possible and not.

Human innovation is our strongest utility that helps us to bring progress. However, it becomes a problem, when our ambitions lose sight of reality around us. In the old days, communists tried to implement the megalomaniac plan to turn the stream of the Siberian rivers from the north to the south in order to fight lack of water in the Post-Soviet central-Asian republics. Fortunately, this madman’s dream was not implemented. In the emissions limit case, we do not turn a river flow, but we do not lag behind the Soviet unrealistic ambitions and ignore the natural laws as much.

While the managers’ lesson from the avoiding emissions limits case is that the truth will always prevail, the politicians’ lesson should be getting an understanding that despite having all the technological advancements we cannot break the wall with our head. The Soviet communists understood it with their abandoned plan to turn the river flow. Are we able to give up ambitions which do not respect economic and natural relations?

Translated by Milan Majtán and Martin Reguli