Details have been emerging this week of a clever trick pulled by Volkswagen in North America. The German-based automaker is alleged to have been using software to cheat EPA emissions tests for millions of its turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engine Volkswagen and Audi cars dating back to 2009.
New vehicles pretty much the world over are required by law to be controlled by a computer featuring a standardized on-board diagnostic (OBD) system, which is used in many countries for periodic compulsory emissions tests. Someone at VW figured out how to get the engine management firmware to sense when an emissions test was being performed and to deliver the desired output signals contrary to what was really happening.
The revelations may seem like a blow to Volkswagen. But closer analysis of the situation through the lens of anarchist political economy reveals how the scandal could end up benefiting the established motor industry, including Volkswagen.
In a way some of the earlier TDIs were the last of the open engines. It’s obvious why they’ve dominated the performance-diesel market despite some very impressive offerings from competitors. They were basically derivatives of the old EA827 diesel engine of the 1970s with combustion-chamber improvements, a turbocharger, and a thin veneer of purely supplementary electronic control. The result was a package which outperformed many comparable spark-ignition engines right out of the box, but which could be made to do some truly silly things by fiddling with the mechanical diesel injector pump and the turbocharger. If one is lucky enough to be clear of emissions-inspection requirements the ultimate home-brew high-performance development is what is called an M-TDI (M for mechanical) wherein the electronic controls are summarily deleted. And, being an extremely compact engine, the 1.9TDI has been a popular candidate for engine swaps: Small 4×4 Suzukis are common recipients. The engines affected by the current scandal have a later, cheaper common-rail injection system, because VW doesn’t want to make the mechanical-pump TDI engine.
Volkswagen has a nasty habit of making things with a huge following but which it doesn’t particularly want to make. Part of the reason VW continues to do so is because repeat business is a huge asset to it. But it is based on the expectation that the TDI engine will lose VW money. Consequently, a paradoxical component of VW’s marketing culture has comprised figuring out how to stop making air-cooled Beetles in South America and Mexico, Golf Mk1s and T3 Transporters in South Africa, and TDIs with their expensive mechanical pumps everywhere, without alienating a market which remains ready to buy them as fast as they’re made.
The last thing VW wants is their customers getting their hands dirty. A clue into VW’s real aspirations is given by the 1999 Audi A2 with its “service panel” in lieu of a conventional hood. Though this was part of a larger panel which could be unbolted to gain access to the engine, the message was clear: The mechanism is none of your business.
But the primary motivation for all this is not so much the savings in manufacturing cost. More important is the industry-wide desire to increase the value of the car’s software/firmware relative to its hard parts. Thanks to legal precedents which have proved extremely robust, hard parts are almost impossible to copyright. As we know, this is not the case with software. Hence the drive to make as great a part of the overall product dependent on copyrightable electronic control. And from there, it is not difficult to figure out where OBD really came from.
If Dieselgate achieves anything for the established motor industry, it will provoke the state into bulletproofing OBD. That would be yet another means by which the unassailable position of the established motor industry is maintained and expanded. And it would be another erosion of your and my control of our living environments.
Keep in mind the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions which were the subject of the TDI-OBD trick are readily absorbed into the natural nitrogen cycle as long as overall emissions are low. At levels corresponding to the amount of vehicle traffic the established motor industry needs to stay in business, however, the NOx would cause photochemical smog and precipitate as acid rain, but for cumbersome gadgetry which serves no purpose except to make gridlock vaguely viable. The problem isn’t NOx. The problem isn’t even emissions. The problem is too much vehicle traffic. The problem is dependence on vehicular mobility.
And dependence on vehicular mobility is something the established motor industry has cultivated for a very long time by exercising the oligopoly power which it receives from the state through regulation which effectively outlaws competition from outside. Thus, by enabling ever-increasing vehicle traffic, regulation has managed to make environmental problems a lot worse.
A “duly chastened” VW will be back with a vengeance, making the wholly opaque disposable vehicles it really wants to make, just like the rest of the industry.