By now the Volkswagen emissions scandal has been widely reported and analyzed, and the consequences the German carmaker will face for using software to cheat on emissions tests will be determined, at least in part, by a mass of lawyers.
What interests me is how Volkswagen’s actions fit into the broader context of greenwashing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen intentionally programmed a number of its diesel vehicles to activate emissions controls only during testing. The vehicles’ software allowed the nitrogen oxide (NOx) output to satisfy U.S. emissions standards during testing while producing much higher emissions during actual driving conditions.
In one sense, this comports with a theme we’ve encountered before in greenwashing, i.e., a product’s real-world performance does not live up to its testing results.
The most common example is the charge that a car’s actual gas mileage is considerably lower than the EPA’s fuel efficiency estimates. These allegations have been made against Ford, Toyota, and Honda (see previous posts here, here, and here).
A variation on this theme is the allegation that the testing protocols themselves are flawed, e.g., in lawsuits against Hyundai and Kia about supposedly overstated fuel economy figures due to testing methods that were not compliant with EPA requirements.
But just as troubling as the result of the deception (actual NOx output being considerably greater than the tested output) is Volkswagen’s method of deception.
This seems be part of a new trend of technological greenwashing. Rather than making false or misleading statements in ads and other marketing materials, or providing express statements of inflated numbers, this new form of greenwashing uses technology to deceive.
We’ve seen technological greenwashing at least once before in a lawsuit accusing Ford of claiming that a software update for the Fusion Hybrid would increase performance and mileage (see previous post here). According to the plaintiff, the car’s monitor displayed better mileage and less gas usage after the upgrade but the numbers were inaccurate and the vehicle’s actual mileage did not improve.
This Volkswagen high-tech greenwash is more insidious because the entire deception is cloaked in technology; there isn’t even an affirmative misleading display as in the Ford case, so government agencies and consumers might have no idea there are any representations being made.
This probably is not the last we’ll see of the high-tech greenwash.