VW made a brazen move after it realized in 2008 that its small diesel engine could not realistically meet pollution standards in the United States as well as consumer expectation for performance and fuel economy. Someone in the company came up with the idea to design the computer software to only turn on the pollution controls (that greatly reduce engine power) when the front wheels are moving but the back wheels are stationary, cheating a typical emissions test that takes place on a dyno. Other car companies were baffled as to how VW was accomplishing these emission standards. Mazda and Honda for example had not exported their diesel engines to the United States because they were incapable of profitably meeting the emissions standards. Many consumer diesel engine,s for example BMW, meet the standards by actually using a reservoir of urea to reduce engine emissions of NOx gasses at substantial expense to the cost of the car.
The story of how VW originally got busted can be found at caranddriver.com, but it essentially ends in the EPA threatening to not approve the 2016 diesel models, which compose about 25% of VW’s sales in the US. VW’s stock has already dropped by over 40% and they are certainly going to have to pay large EPA fines as well as retrofit or replace offending models and possibly compensate consumers — not to mention wrangle with the inevitable civil lawsuits (which mostly just make the lawyers rich). All of this has cost and will cost the world’s largest automaker many billions of dollars.
But how damaging is this violation of EPA regulation actually to the American public? According to an AP study, it’s predicted that, since 2008, about 16 to 94 deaths result from the VW/Audi vehicles emitting 15-35 times higher NOx than EPA standards. That sounds heinous until you put this into perspective; diesel emissions already cause an estimated 25,000 deaths a year (mostly from people living near truck routes; trucks enjoy a completely different and more lax set of emissions standards). This means that VW cheating the emissions standards on 500,000 vehicles for 7 years will increase diesel-related deaths anywhere from 0.009% to 0.05%.
So really, was VW engaging in industrial subterfuge which has made millions suffer, or were they just skirting a bullshit law that barely matters like any driver doing 70 in a 55mph zone?
Of course if you want an example of ridiculously over-cautious regulation by the EPA costing lives and billions (quadrillions?) of dollars, you need look no further than the paranoia within the regulations on safe levels of radioactivity. The threshold for safe radioactivity levels were raised in 2014 by a factor of 350 to revise the previous absurdly-low regulations which used as a model the linear no-threshold theory on the relationship between cancer and radioactivity. If the American public and military-industrial complex had not fumbled the ball on paranoia about radioactivity and the incredible potential of nuclear energy, we basically would already have a near-zero carbon economy based on free-market principles.