The Real Scandal Is the EPA’s Diesel Policy, Not Volkswagen

You’ve probably heard about the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The official story is that engineers at VW faked emissions test results to meet EPA requirements. VW made it appear as though its diesel engines produced fewer pollutants while being tested than they actually produce on the road. When independent testers identified the issue, VW was forced to fix 11 million vehicles, and pay over $7 billion in fines, refits, and buy-backs. This much is true.

However, that’s not the full story. VW cheated because the EPA introduced an ultra-stringent emissions standard with the expectation that automakers would invent compatible technology. VW engineers faced intense pressure to invent suitable technology before the deadline.

The rigid EPA regulations reduced some types of pollutants while creating more of others, and forced a radical environmentalist agenda, set in California, to shape the design of cars for a global market. The EPA rules drastically increased the cost of diesel vehicles, forcing trucking companies to install $20,000 pollution control systems, and driving up costs for all American consumers.

Furthermore, the scandal exposed the incompetence of the EPA in regulating the auto industry, as the $8 billion agency missed what a professor and two students easily discovered.

Finally, and perhaps most regretfully, the EPA regulations harmed the diesel market, which produces vehicles that are both more efficient and cleaner than petrol vehicles.

The EPA’s Unrealistic Expectations

The new United States “Tier 2” rules were set in 1999.They were based on California’s LEV-II ULEV standard with a “phase-in” period from 2004-2009. Environmental regulations in the U.S. and Europe typically use a “phase-in” period so that manufacturers have time to invent technology that meets the more stringent environmental rules.

This is pretty fantastic if you think about it. Every few years, a committee of bureaucrats decides that your car, dishwasher, toilet or vacuum should produce less pollution, and demand that the manufacturer invent technology to make it possible within “X” years. This works so long as the demand is physically and logistically possible – or until it’s not.

Students Are More Efficient Than the EPA

Two scientists at West Virginia Universitydecided to test whether the EPA’s testing matched real-world performance. They expected test results that were very close to the official standards. And with two students in the car, they put 2,400 kilometers on a VW Jetta by driving it from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again.

To their surprise, they found that the Jetta produced more than ten times the allowable NOx levels. NOx refers to a family of mono-nitrogen oxide particles, which produce harmful effects like acid rain and ozone in high concentration. Significant sources of NOx include lightning (8.6 million tonnes/year), fertilizers, coal power plants, and fuel used for transportation.

The scientists found that VW cars produce more NOx than permitted by the 1999 EPAregulations in real-world driving. But they could also detect when tests were conducted under laboratory conditions and artificially lower emissions. This confirmed what millions of VW owners already knew: their VW diesel cars had much higher fuel mileage than the EPA stickers stated. The scientists reported their findings to the EPA, forcing the agency to open a formal investigation that led to a global recall.

EPA Policies Encouraged VW to Cheat

Why did the VW engineers feel the need to cheat on their emissions tests? Remember that the EPA regulations for the California-based NOx standard was issued in 1999, with a five year standard.

Our environment has an infinite number of variables affecting the quality of everyone’s lives.

VW struggled to meet the new standards with a series of designs, but it was forced to suspend sales of current diesel in 2007. Finally in 2008, it announced new Clean Diesel cars which were able to win numerous “green” awards thanks to the emission-cheating software.

Why was VW the only automaker to cheat its emissions? Most automakers only have one or two high-end diesel vehicles in their lineup so they could take the additional costs and lower fuel efficiency caused by the new standard. Over 30 percent of VW vehicles were diesel however, so they probably felt that they could not comply with the new regulations. At least not without a major hit to either profits or sales.

In order to reduce NOx output, petrol cars use devices such as catalytic converters, which have greatly reduced pollutants from cars since 1975. Because diesel engines have a higher oxygen output, they don’t work nearly as well. As a result, other technologies have been introduced, such as exhaust recirculation systems, urea-based exhaust treatments, lowered engine temperatures and electronically controlled fuel injectors. All modern vehicles are essentially sophisticated computers which continuously monitor many engine parameters and optimize for both engine efficiency and pollution output under legal standards.

There is a trade-off: minimizing exhaust pollutants takes energy which can be used to move the car, so for a given power output, the more NOx a car produces, the more efficient it is. Efficiency can be measured in both mileage and CO2 output, so when the EPA mandated lower NOx production, they effectively lowered fuel efficiency and increased CO2 output.

VW was forced to choose between delivering clean but underpowered and inefficient cars, or cheat in lab tests and deliver power and fuel efficiency on the road. They sided with the drivers over the EPA.

New Regulations Increased Gas and Product Prices

Most people assume that new EPA regulations are good for the environment. But this is far from being absolute.The “environment” is not a single metric, but our entire planet, and with an infinite number of variables affecting the quality of everyone’s lives. When a committee of EPA bureaucrats bowed to political pressure and passed new NOx regulations in 1999, they considered only a single variable: the amount of NOx pollutants produced by diesel vehicles in the air. NOx is harmful to animals, so the fewer the better. (Plants, on the other hand, turn it into nitrogen and use it as fertilizer).

While minimizing harmful chemical in car exhausts is important, it’s not free. The emission control systems lower the fuel efficiency of cars (generating more CO2) and require complex and exotic technologies. Catalytics converts are made of precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. Diesel emission reduction technology that can comply with the new EPA demands requires complex and immature new technologies that raise costs and require more frequent maintenance.

An emission control system for a commercial truck can cost $20,000 and requires regular and expensive maintenance. The increased transport costs raise the cost of everything in our economy – from your Amazon Prime subscription (which pays for package shipments) to the gas fuel (brought in by gas tankers). For example, take a company like Flying J, which sells 7 billion gallons of fuel each year. They need over 1500 trucks to deliver that fuel, and each one requires a $20,000 pollution control system.

How much is a marginal difference in air quality worth to you, if a miniscule increase in pollution meant improved living standards for everyone? This is a valid question, but the EPA’s (and California’s) blanket stance that all pollution is bad, and internal combustion vehicles must be eliminated from existence leave no room for a cost-benefit analysis.

The EPA’s Solutions Hurts People and the Environment

Here is what actually happened when environmental activists forced the EPA to make US diesel standards the highest in the world:

  • Some companies cut diesel engine production because it was too much trouble to comply.
  • Some companies cheated and got caught, putting their entire business in jeopardy.
  • Individual diesel owners who care about the superior performance and efficiency of diesel engine hacked their cars, bypassing EPA regulations.

Hacking a diesel car is not hard. Because modern cars are computers on wheels, owners who want an efficient and high-performing engine can get it tuned from a friendly mechanic. If they live in a state which requires inspections, the hack can be turned off as needed. Other owners change out to a non-stock thermostack to burn the fuel hotter (and a bit dirtier), or bypass exhaust recirculation systems entirely. These owners are not out to destroy the environment – they just want a fuel-efficient vehicle, or to haul their trailer, or climb a mountain road.

The real shame in this story is that diesel’s reputation has been sullied despite its superiority for many applications. Diesel engines have lower RPM at peak torque, allowing them to remain efficient at high altitudes or hauling heavy loads. They require service at longer intervals (and commercial truck engines can last a million miles with proper maintenance), and are typically more efficient and higher-mileage than petrol engines.

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Five common errors made by abortion critics

Opponents of abortion (those who oppose a woman’s right to abortion and those think it is merely immoral) typically make five kinds of logical errors:

1: The seen and the unseen:

Abortion opponents see the fetus which was aborted but ignore the good things that the abortion made possible. These include the mother who is free to pursue her life goals and the lives of the children who are born into families that want and are ready for them. The decision to have an abortion is not arbitrary: it’s a choice the mother makes because she believes that she and her future children will have a better life by delaying childbirth. Extensive research confirms that abortion improves the lives of mothers and their future children. More importantly, no one, and certainly no politician is more qualified or morally justified to decide what will lead to a better life for a mother and her family.

A world without abortions is not a world with more children — it is a place with children born to parents who are not psychologically and financially ready for a life-long responsibility. Children who are born to loving parents who welcome them to the world and are prepared to care for them are far more likely to grow up into successful, mature adults. This is why protecting the right to abortion is one of the most effective ways of reducing abortions!

This failure of the imagination is known in economics as the Broken Window Fallacy – we see the economic activity created by the need to repair a broken window, but do not see the goods that can no longer be bought because they were redirected to fix that window. Likewise, we see the children who are products of unwanted births, but we don’t see the children who never had a chance to be born into a family that wanted them. Instead, countries that ban abortion deal with higher rates of single-parent families, poverty, and crime.

2: Genetic determinism:

Abortion opponents equate a human being with his genetic legacy. To them, an aborted fetus represents a lost potential life, with all its richness. But the inherent value of a human life is not determined by our genes, but the interaction of our genes with the environment we grow up in, especially the ideas and culture we are exposed to. A fetus is only a part of the recipe for a human being. A human being is not merely a biological machine, but a rational animal, with a rich internal life. We can argue when that mental existence becomes a possibility, but it is certainly closer to birth than conception.

To take a sci-fi scenario, a fetus grown into a brain-dead grown adult in a vat is not a full human being either. Human beings are the synthesis of biology and culture. Theists often talk of the fetus as having a “soul”, but whether you believe in genes or a mystical essence, the error is the same.

3: Potential vs actual:

A fetus is a potential human being, not an actual one. The ingredients for a cake on a table cannot be called a cake. A seedling is not a tree. A fetus is a potential human being and only becomes one under specific biological conditions.

The distinction is especially clear early in the pregnancy: a blastocyst is a microscopic clump of cells, physically almost identical to the fetus of any other mammal. To say that a bit of protoplasm is a human being ignores the essence of what a person is: an independently functioning rational animal.

A human being can exist without an exclusive biological dependence on a host, intentionally interact with its environment, and possess the basic attributes of cognition. A fetus lacks these attributes. True, a newborn infant is entirely dependent on others for its continued survival, but this is a relationship, not a biological necessity. Virtually everyone in a civilization would soon die without the cooperation of others, but these are contractual relationships, not biological dependencies. A baby can be adopted by a willing family, a fetus cannot.

The moment of birth presents a clear physical, biological, and psychological point when a parasite (as an analogy, not a derogatory term) becomes a metaphysically independent being.

4: Continuum fallacy:

This is the logical fallacy of denying that a distinction exists because there exists a continuum. For example, there is no clear distinction between a stubble and a beard, yet the existence of unclear cases does not invalidate our ability to identify someone with a beard. Likewise, difficulty in identifying the exact instant that a fetus becomes a human being does not mean that there are no clear differences between a fetus (say, a single-celled ovum just after fertilization) and a clear example of a human being (an infant, or you and me).

We can acknowledge difficulty, and err on the safe side for moral or legal reasons, but we need to base our conclusions on facts, not arbitrary religious doctrine. I outlined what I believe are the relevant facts in the “potential vs actual” section above. By contrast, I think that the act of conception meets no reasonable criteria, especially at the beginning of the pregnancy. As I detailed, a fertilized ovum is not metaphysically equivalent to a human being, and only begins to approach that status towards the moment of birth, which firms an unambiguous epistemological and therefore legal distinction. (We can argue about the ethics of late-term abortion, but they are a red-herring in the debate the meaning of conception.)

5: False dichotomy between moral absolutism and subjectivism

A false dichotomy is a false alternative between an either/or situation when an additional position exists. In regard to abortion, the dichotomy is this:
“Women must be responsible for their sexual choices and forced to bear children they do not want in order to preserve traditional marriages, families, morality, religion, or another value. Either we hold people responsible for their choices or anything goes.”

There are two false dichotomies in regard to abortion:

First, there is no fundamental conflict between women leading moral lives, raising families, and observing religious beliefs and the practice of abortion. There is no inherent conflict between these concepts. Of course, some religious groups claim that abortion goes against their tenets, but there is no fundamental conflict between these practices, and indeed many religious groups allow for abortion with no ill effect to their basic tenets. More importantly, there is no fundamental conflict between living a virtuous life and abortion, whether individually or as a society. In Western countries such as Germany, France, and Australia, abortions are widely practiced and accepted, and yet are completely incidental to their moral qualities.

Second, there is no conflict between a lifestyle which separates sexuality from parenthood and healthy, loving, responsible families. Modern society has provided men and women with safe and effective technologies that separate sex and childbirth — condoms, birth control pills, emergency contraception, and as a last resort, abortion. These tools liberate women by allowing them to enjoy fulfilling sexual lives for the first time in human history.

While independent women with sexual agency are a threat to those who wish to force them into their vision of a woman’s role in society, there is no reason that women who desire sex for reasons other than childbirth are incapable of healthy and responsible relationships, marriage, and child-rearing.  Having sex for pleasure without the risk of a lifelong obligation does not preclude women and men from forming healthy romantic relationships.  Even abortion critics must accept this – or require a fertility test before any couple is allowed to have sex or marry.  What about those who are infertile or past menopause?

Allowing women to choose when they are ready to raise a child greatly improves the likelihood of raising children in stable, loving families. Children should not be a sacrificial obligation which women must be forced into, but a personal, selfish choice that parents pursue because it will bring joy and a multitude of other benefits into their lives.

Capitalism can bridge our cultural gulf – if we let it

On Friday, I was commiserating with our Pakistani freelancer about the challenge of fasting for Ramadan in the 113°F heat and intermittent AC in Lahore, while he congratulated me on my promotion. There we were, a militant atheist Jew and a devout Muslim separated by 7730 miles and an even wider cultural gulf, but united by a love of good design and commitment to our common project.  Capitalism bound us in ways that go beyond a simple financial transaction.

We found each other for purely utilitarian reasons, nominally driven by the need to earn a living, yet self-motivated by our individual passions for great design and leveraging intellectual advocacy through technology.  We are not merely a capitalist exploiter and wage-serf, linked through unfeeling logic and financial necessity.  We are two passionate entrepreneurs, using money as the tool by which we further our individual values and careers.  Once our financial arrangement is complete, our connection will fade, but a mutual respect and some deeper sense of understanding and empathy will remain.  My mental image of a Pakistani or a Muslim will expand to include a talented designer struggling with power outages and heat waves while balancing the requirements of his faith and the demands of his perfectionist clients.

When I heard the news about the shooting in Orlando, I thought about how both sides will dehumanize each other — the radical Muslims who condemn secular Western culture, and the fearful, warmongering Westerners who wish to destroy and build walls against the alien.  It’s hard to imagine how these two groups can connect, understand, and build empathy with each other.  It’s hard to be friends or lovers with someone so physically and mentally distant.  And yet capitalism provides a chance for a real connection — if we let it.