Elon Musk, 44 Others: Waive VW Diesel Fix In Exchange for Making VW Produce More Electric Cars

Ever since the news broke in September that German automaker Volkswagen had purposely programmed the engine management units of certain model-year vehicles fitted with its EA 189 2.0-litre, four-cylinder TDI diesel engines to cheat in mandatory NOx emissions testing, everyone from politicians to environmentalists and auto-industry executives have weighed in on how VW should make amends for its misdeeds.

Even the award-winning This American Life radio show and podcast weighed in with its own take on how VW should try to deal with the PR nightmare that has followed the scandal.

Musk and 44 other signatories say VW should be forced to make EVs

Musk and 44 other signatories say VW should be forced to make EVs

Under U.S. Federal law — and even tougher California state emissions law as adopted by thirteen U.S. states — VW faces massive fines for its misdeeds. In addition, it will be compelled to carry out a recall on more than 480,000 noncompliant diesel-powered vehicles on the roads of the U.S. to bring them in compliance with emissions regulations.

But on Thursday last week, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, along with forty-four other environmental leaders and silicon-valley executives, called on California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols to release VW from its obligation to ‘fix’ the hundreds of thousands of non-compliant diesel vehicles on the roads of the state and instead force VW to build more zero emission cars instead.

Volkswagen already makes electric cars -- so why not require it to make more?

Volkswagen already makes electric cars — so why not require it to make more?

The plea was detailed in an official letter which was simultaneously sent to Nichols and published in full by NewsWeek on Thursday. Alongside Musk’s name, the letter includes endorsement from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capitalists, as well as Lyndon Rive, CEO of Solar City, Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, former eBay President Jeff Skoll, and Lawrence Bender, the Producer of the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth.

“The VW emissions scandal is mainly the result of physics meeting fiction,” the letter says. “In the simplest terms, we have reached the point of de minimis returns in extracting performance from a gallon of diesel while reducing pollutants, at least at reasonable cost. Unsurprisingly, and despite having the greatest research and development program in diesel engines, VW had to cheat to meet current European and U.S. standards. Meeting future tighter diesel standards will prove even more fruitless.”

Volkswagen has already promised it will invest more in electric vehicle technology.

Volkswagen has already promised it will invest more in electric vehicle technology.

“A giant sum of money thus will be wasted in attempting to fix cars that cannot all be fixed, and where the fix may be worse than the problem if the cars are crushed well before the end of their useful lives,” the letter continues. “We, the undersigned, instead encourage the CARB to show leadership in directing VW to ‘cure the air, not the cars’ and reap multiples of what damage has been caused while strongly advancing California’s interests in transitioning to zero-emission vehicles.”

Essentially, Musk and his cosignors argue, forcing VW to retrofit its non-compliant cars with hardware and software designed to bring them into compliance is essentially taking away money and engineering efforts which could be better spent on coming up with a more long-lasting and fruitful solution. Namely, building more zero emission cars.

In forcing Volkswagen to accelerate its rollout of zero emission vehicles, the letter states, the California Air Resources Board would also be saving itself money too: since zero emission cars have no tailpipe emissions to verify or enforce, CARB wouldn’t face any more problems with non-compliant cars.

Trying to fix diesel engines wastes time and money, argues Musk et all.

Trying to fix diesel engines wastes time and money, argues Musk et all.

Alongside mandating VW accelerate its development of zero emission vehicles, the signatories propose that VW manages a 10 for 1 or greater reduction in pollution emissions as compared to the pollution associated with the Dieselgate scandal. That achievement, they argue, should be achieved in the next five years.

The proposal isn’t just about cleaning up the air in the state of Claifornia however. As part of the five points outlined by all 45 signatories, the letter calls for CARB to require VW to invest in new manufacturing plants, as well as research and development facilities in California equivalent to and in lieu of the fines currently racking up against it. This, would not only have a positive impact on employment in the region, but would also help California and Volkswagen work together to tackle the biggest challenge facing electric vehicle and other zero emission vehicle deployment: the availability of batteries.

As part of the proposal, the letter calls for VW to invest in Californian factories as well as R&D centres for battery development.

As part of the proposal, the letter calls for VW to invest in Californian factories as well as R&D centres for battery development.

“There is an urgent need to build more battery factories to increase battery supply, and this proposal would ensure that large battery plant and related investments, with their ensuing local jobs, would be made in the U.S. by VW,” the letter reads, adding that the way to fix all of the affected non-compliant diesel vehicles affected by the dieselgate scandal “does not likely exist.

The idea of requiring Volkswagen to build zero emission vehicles as a penance for its dieselgate crimes isn’t a new one. Indeed, ever since the scandal broke back in September, we’ve heard a fairly constant call for Volkswagen to do exactly that from electric vehicle advocates.

But this time, the plea is coming from a list of names influential enough to actually sway CARB to following its advice. What’s more, the letter carefully notes there’s a precedent.

“In the industry-wide 1990 diesel truck cheating scandal, the EPA chose not to require an interim recall but instead moved up the deadline for tougher standards to make up the difference, ” the signatories remind us. “This proposal does the same for VW and ties the solution to a transition to zero emission vehicles.”

You can read the letter for yourself over at Newsweek. Having read it several times ourselves, we can’t see any negative side-effects from CARB adopting this particular proposal. The question now is “will it follow the advice of some of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds?”

Leave your answers and thoughts in the Comments below.

[Hat-tip: Joseph Dubeau]


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  • Chris O

    Looks like Elon Musk is challenging VW to do its own $35K, 200 miles Model 3 competitor. After all that is the concept he is betting will sell in the sort of numbers that would easily offset the extra emissions of the cheat fleet.

    It’s going to be interesting to see the specs of the long-range electric Volkswagen Microbus concept that VW will show on the Detroit Autoshow. Be careful Elon, you might get what you wished for!

  • Ed

    If I had a vote on this matter, I would vote to fully support the proposal.

    The VW situation has no precedent, thus perhaps this equally unprecedented proposal will find a welcome in both Sacramento and Wolfsburg. From its current fully-discredited position, Volkswagen could quickly find itself “kickstarted” down the road to global leadership in electric vehicle design and manufacturing. Even though there is the strong desire for revenge from customers, competitors and governments, the world would be better for an “electrified Volkswagen.”

    Having said that, I still believe there must be jail time for the management at VW that committed this crime. I also believe that if software changes or simple hardware changes can even slightly reduce emissions on the offending vehicles, these changes should be done, too. After all, those of us who live in places like LA still have to breath among these vehicles. Put a limit on it of, say, $50 per car, without labor.

    Were I the CEO of Volkswagen, I would leap at the opportunity to “shift gears” to electric vehicles, and I would use it to reshape my company for the electric future. There will be pain, no matter what course Volkswagen choses. But the proposed route has the potential to give the company a very bright future. What irony that would be.

    Lastly, a question many of us have had for over a decade is, “How do you make a Diesel clean enough to meet the current standards, and why would a company invest in Diesels when meeting future standards looks impossible.” It seems the answer from Volkswagen was, “We cheat today and will be able to cheat in the future!” Diesels can never be clean…even when dumping cat pee in the exhaust. Full stop.

    And…very soon we will see that the Diesels of other car company will come into question. Fall of 2015 is likely a watershed period in the history of automobiles.