The Other Side of the Coin

I am writing in response to Eric Peters’ NMA “The Mushroom Cloud Expands” blog of October 5 about the VW emissions scandal. Mr. Peters is a proud libertarian who feels that government intrusion into our lives is usually misguided and sometime tyrannical. In the current case of VW he says the villain is the EPA, not VW. The true scandal, in his opinion, is the heavy-handed federal government. He says that the affected cars run better than they would if they had adhered to the standards, and he is right. He says that government safety standards (he often calls them “safety” standards) make cars heavier and more complicated than they could be, which in turn makes them more expensive to buy and operate, and he is right.

But he neglects to consider the other side of the coin. Lighter cars certainly perform and handle better than heavier ones but they would be less safe in a crash. Those mandated airbags, door bars, ABS brakes, etc., add weight but they also save lives. There are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle exposed the horrible and unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry. Once again there were tradeoffs: lower costs and higher profits for the manufacturers, or safer food and working conditions. We, as a society, made a choice and created the FDA to regulate the food supply. In the 1960s the FDA did not permit the thalidomide drug into the US while it was being used overseas in less-regulated countries. The result was that we were spared the thousands of one-limbed and no-limbed babies, many of whom died, which occurred throughout the rest of the world.

Is there ever regulatory over-reach? Of course. There’s also regulatory under-reach: Hundreds of people died during the years that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration didn’t react in spite of receiving many complaints about faulty ignition switches in GM cars.

Let’s consider the VW case. VW designed some of their diesel cars to emit lower emissions when being tested than when on the road. The effect is that emissions of Nitric oxide (NOx) were higher than legally allowed. NOx is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and also a health hazard causing asthma, emphysema and bronchitis, and it can aggravate existing heart disease. The other side of that coin is that the cars get better fuel mileage and better performance than they would if they truly conformed to the regulations. Once again, there is a tradeoff to consider. Which is more important – better health or better fuel economy and performance?

A fair analysis of the VW situation requires looking at both sides of the equation, i.e. the tradeoffs involved, not merely one side as Mr. Peters does. Maybe diesels can’t be made to give adequate fuel mileage and performance while providing low emissions as well as their gasoline-powered brothers can. Maybe VW bet on the wrong horse and covered their tracks by cheating.

In our society we have a means to establish the balances we want: it is our government and its regulatory arms. If we don’t like the results we can replace the executive and legislative sides by voting to install people and policies we prefer. We do not have a society in which individual actors (VW, in this case) can unilaterally circumvent our laws.

It is very easy to complain about dim-witted bureaucrats. It is much more difficult to construct a balanced system which protects consumers while at the same time permitting innovation.

VW intentionally made millions of cars with a hidden ‘trick’ system designed to circumvent the regulations controlling dangerous emissions. People will be sickened and perhaps some will die as a result. Personally, I have no problem with this particular tradeoff: VW is the bad guy, not the US government.

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3 Responses to “The Other Side of the Coin”

  1. seenmuch says:

    Sorry but I think you are missiong the point here…….Light duty diesel autos stopped being offered in the US market after 1986MY with the end & reduction CAFE requirements in law….

    These current rules on NON-EXISTENT for close to three decades now was never about cleaing up any air….How could these rediculious emissions rules give us cleaner air when they today make us less than 1/2 of ONE % of new vehicles sold & on the road today! These emissions rules which VW skirted at best were never about giving us cleaner air…..But they were about two thins….

    1) Making the air look cleaner on paper while allowing the truck & SUV emissions annd CAFE loophole continue for another decade & a half…….Today non-exisistant light duty diesels are required to meet these unrealistic rules to allow for the light to medinm truc/SUV class to keep their CAFE & emissions loophole for at least another decade!

    2) The current completely useless emissions requirements today on vehicles no one has sold here in any numbers for 3 decades are in place to block 60-80 mpgUS real world fuel sipping diesel auto from our market……And the real block is this law/rule VW skirted since the most fuel sipping diesel options put out higher NOx!

    So there clowns got together and said how can we block amerika from ever adopting the most fuel efficient vehicles ever concieved of or built……Let’s pass overzealious light duty diesel auto emission so no one ever trys to sell them here………

    Now we are at today,,,,VW followed the law and passed the bench test. a test which those who made it up admitted was not a realistic for the real world test…..

    Then they, CARB & EPA came back after they were pushed on this, sonething the entire industry always knew….their vehicles like many others exceed regulated levels under extreme conditions….Like during warm up when emissions regulations are very lax for all, or going sraight up a mountain which is when VW failed this test and the law is more than vague on what is allowed…..ect……while the rest of the time they easily pass current limits…

    How about we incert a little reality into the mix here….VWAG skirted the law at best obeyed with an astrict the law at worst in specific sercumstances at best. But they admitted to what the EPA asked to get through the current fight to get the current diesel models back onto the lots within a few weeks ….A admissions were made to get current models on lots back for sale to prevent a long fight……..

    There is a lot more that hasn’t been told on this, and the best fix for this is to requrie all auto makers to meet real world standards in a real world test and climb off VWAG’s back on this…………

    How about we fix the law allowing for most fuel sipping options 50-80 mphUS to have NOx exemption because of the real benefit they can give us allowing their sale…..And phase these current rules in over the next decade as technoligy makes the meeting of the regs more practical for benefit this class of fuel sipping vehicles can offer us all…..

    • seenmuch says:

      To keep current overzealous emissions on light duty diesel autos makes no sense today with what they could give us TODAY if they were introducted fleet wide in all classes of vehicles…..We could overnight cut on road fuel consumption by 75% by an adopting of Euro-5 standards in auto class……And that reduction of energy use would make us safer as a nation so is worth pushing for realistic regulations on light duty diesel autos……

  2. Ken in NH says:

    Your argument for regulation uses extreme cases where no regulation existed or was not enforced. It does not extrapolate out to extending regulations beyond the point of optimal returns. At some point we will have made cars about as safe as they can be and saving an extra few lives or injuries will incur unreasonable costs. At some point, we will have made gasoline and diesel powered vehicles about as clean as they can be and the costs of ever increasing standards will rise exponentially. I would argue (as Peters often does) that we have gone beyond those points and are not reaping diminishing returns. Worse, we are now starting to see cures that are worse than the disease. Take ethanol mandates for example. The reason that they persist is the corn lobby, sure, but they were originally created to lower emissions and clean up air pollution in cities. The only problem is that ethanol is very volatile, much more so than gasoline, and escapes when exposed to air. It is a major cause of ground level ozone, which is far worse for people with asthma and other pulmonary diseases. So it actually makes our air worse, but in a different and more toxic way, than unadulterated gasoline does.

    Here is your tell though: “People will be sickened and perhaps some will die as a result.”

    That is an out and out lie. The difference in NOx emissions from the standard multiplied by the number of TDIs in operation before this news broke, would not cause even the most severe asthmatic to suffer even the most mild reaction that he would not have already suffered with the lowered emissions.