Automobile ads were once brilliant and habit-forming. Volkswagen had NBA star Wilt Chamberlin unfolding his 7′1″ frame from a Beetle car in 1966 and had created the trendsetting “Think Small” campaign in 1959. These for a post–World War II German-made car at a time when Cadillacs had tailfins. How times have changed.
By 2008, when the UN’s 14th Conference of the Parties on climate change was taking place in Poland, California was forcing automakers to reduce emissions from passenger cars or be banned from the nation’s largest car-buying state. The ads that year from Volkswagen, Audi, and other automakers began to tout a breakthrough “clean diesel” engine, low on emissions and high in gas mileage. But it was a fake.
On Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office announced a $25 million settlement with Bosch, describing in detail how the company helped Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler defeat smog tests in order to game the state’s low-emissions requirement. The AG’s office, under Xavier Becerra, had already sued the automakers for their part in the deception, settling with VW for $1.5 billion and Fiat Chrysler for $78 million.
Diesel and gasoline engines produce different types of smog, generally because diesel fuel burns hotter. While burning gasoline produces more carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, diesel produces more sulfur and nitrous oxides and also more particulate matter, the stuff that makes people cough, gets into the lungs, and even into the bloodstream.
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Bosch had developed hardware and software for the “electronic control unit” for diesel engines that ingeniously controlled the engine and emissions system temporarily whenever the vehicle was being tested for smog, making it fall within legal limits, according to the complaint. The rest of the time, the complaint alleges, the vehicle emitted as much as 40 times the legal limit of nitrous oxides — these get into the respiratory system and also cause acid rain. VW, Audi, and Porsche sold or leased about 87,000 such vehicles in California between 2008 and 2016, and Fiat Chrysler about 14,000 between 2014 and 2016.
Warning automakers that violating California’s environmental regulations was an expensive mistake, Dr. Steven Cliff, who heads the state’s Air Resources Board, said, “This settlement addresses technology that was at the heart of the automobile emissions cheating scandals at Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler and that has led directly to increased emissions and unhealthful air, especially in neighborhoods suffering from persistent air pollution.”
The state has used the settlement proceeds in mitigation of environmental ills and in investment in zero-emissions technology, among other monetary relief. As well, Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler were required to buy back or install emissions modifications in 85 percent of the vehicles. Bosch is required to report to the attorney general and the Air Resources Board if a manufacturer has or will use a defeat device. Before going into effect, the latest settlement must be approved by a judge.