On a calm morning in September, Carrie Chavez — mother of senior Cristina Chavez flips on the radio only to hear that the manufacturer of the car she has owned for the past 9 years has betrayed her.
Chavez learned that German automaker Volkswagen illegally programmed engines in 11 million diesel cars worldwide with devices that improved emissions results when the cars were undergoing testing.
Though these diesel cars spewed pollution on the roads, they passed the emissions test put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency with the help of illegal software that allowed the engines to sense the testing environment and adjust performance accordingly.
Because Chavez has driven a “clean” 2009 Volkswagen Jetta most of her life, she feels that Volkswagen has lost her trust, as well as the trust of millions of consumers around the world.
“It is offensive to me that Volkswagen would intentionally trick emissions tests for company benefit and profit at the expense of consumers,” Chavez said.
How Volkswagen Did It
The EPA is responsible for setting emissions standards to reduce global pollution, and these standards remain the same for cars found in the same state or region.
Clay Cooley, the owner and founder of Clay Cooley Auto Group in Dallas and St. Mark’s father, says that the root of the problem arose when the Volkswagen company struggled to maintain excellent performance and high fuel efficiency and still meet the EPA’s emissions standards.
“Volkswagen was unable to meet standards and still give customers the engine performance they wanted, which is why they put the software in place,” Cooley said.
Cooley believes that the Volkswagen Group has felt the negative repercussions of its misstep since the day that the cheat in the Volkswagen diesel engines was revealed.
“[The emissions scandal] is affecting the whole brand and hurting the dealers and resale value,” Cooley said. “If you went to trade your Volkswagen in, it wouldn’t be worth as much now because the resale value went down.”
Because the entire Volkswagen brand is taking a hit, the company has set aside about $7 billion for possible fines that it anticipates. In addition, Volkswagen has stopped the sale of the particular diesel cars that caused the controversy with the EPA.
The software found in the engines allowed the cars to release up to a whopping 40 times the legal amount of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide on the road while still appearing to be within the legal limit when being tested.
As one of the primary greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by humans, carbon dioxide released by diesel engines is one of the chief causes of global warming and photochemical smog.
AP Environmental Science teacher Kristin Lindsay-Hudak emphasizes the importance of the emissions standards set by the EPA in reducing global pollution.
“Emissions standards are set to reduce the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere,” Lindsay-Hudak said. “By not following the standards, Volkswagen increased the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants their cars released.”
But the pollutants don’t just affect the atmosphere. Science Department Head Marshall Bartlett believes that the extra nitrogen oxide released by the diesel engines could have negative implications for one’s respiratory health as well.
“Nitrogen oxide is a combination of diesel and other fuels, quickly becomes nitric acid in the atmosphere and is hard on the lungs,” Bartlett said. “Nitrogen oxide is =s of an environmental threat than it is a health concern.”
After realizing that she was responsible for the release of toxic chemicals like nitric oxide and carbon dioxide, Chavez feels that Volkswagen has failed to deliver on its promise of producing environmentally-friendly diesel engines.
“For all those years, I was under the impression that my car was environmentally-friendly, as far as gas emissions went,” Chavez said. “Now I know that even though my car performance did not suffer, I was actually polluting the environment more than I should have been all along,” she said.
The Future of Volkswagen
Volkswagen has experienced intense scrutiny in the United States after the scandal was discovered, and Volkswagen diesel owners are contemplating their next actions, including joining class-action lawsuits against Volkswagen.
Attorney and Partner at JAL Energy Rives Castleman – father of Volkswagen diesel owner senior Sloane Castleman – is disappointed by how the emissions scandal has lowered the value of his daughter’s clean diesel car.
“I’m pretty annoyed, and I’m thinking about joining a class-action suit,” Castleman said. “I think of myself as an educated consumer, and since the car has lost value, I can’t sell or trade it in,” he said.
In addition to the high likelihood of Volkswagen class action suits from Volkswagen owners like Rives Castleman, the company faces possible state and federal actions, as well as a large number of civil, criminal and administrative charges.
Like Castleman, Chavez is still weighing her options on how to respond to the emissions scandal.
“So far, I haven’t taken any action because I’m still exploring my options,” Chavez said. “Volkswagen has indicated times next year to deal with a fix, but I don’t know what they could do for me except for put me in a hybrid,” she said.
Since Volkswagen has depended on releasing extra emissions to give their diesel cars high fuel efficiency and stellar performance, Chavez is concerned about losing performance once the company reprograms their diesel cars to meet EPA emissions standards.
“I am going to lose gas mileage and performance if the emissions thing is changed,” Chavez said. “Their fix will take something away from me,” she said.
Filing a class-action lawsuit is an action that both Chavez and Rives Castleman are considering, and currently, 34 class-action lawsuits have been filed against Volkswagen in over a dozen states.
The piling up of class-action lawsuits is not the only effect of the emissions scandal. Within the company itself, the emissions scandal has also affected the positions of previously high-ranking Volkswagen employees.
Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn was forced to resign due to the tarnishing of Volkswagen’s once-pristine image.
Winterkorn issued a video statement to apologize for Volkswagen’s conduct and to announce his resignation.
“As CEO, I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group,” Winterkorn said in a press conference on Sept. 23.
Winterkorn oversaw the multinational Volkswagen company for eight years and helped the company attain its strong non-U.S. sales.
Currently, the U.S. only accounts for six percent of Volkswagen sales. And although Volkswagen refused to say where the 11 million affected vehicles came from, car analysts report that as many as 10 million were found in Europe, a place where diesel cars make up more than half of the cars sold.
European emissions standards are not as strict as the American standards, and so far, Volkswagen has not been accused of illegally programming vehicles to meet European standards.
However, member nations of the European Union remain aware that cars that meet standards in the laboratory may still be significantly contributing to air pollution, just like the Volkswagen diesels did.
Lucia Caudet, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, issued an official statement to address the issue.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Caudet said. “For the sake of our consumers and the environment, we need certainty that industry scrupulously respects emissions limits.”
Though the emissions scandal served to illuminate the larger issue of the toxic air pollution that cars produce, Cooley does not see the company as being unable to recover from the damage that has been done to its reputation.
After all, companies such as General Motors and Toyota have successfully bounced back from mishaps that are similar to Volkswagen’s in the past.
“The [Volkswagen] brand will definitely come back and get through where it is,” Cooley said. “Volkswagen is the biggest car manufacturer in the world and people felt like they were being lied to, but the company will recover.”