When the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke late last year, it was a pretty big deal. Indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio is even rumored to be producing a film about it. But questions abounded about how the executive team could have allowed such a thing to happen. My theory was that they did not; rather, a small group of engineers had independently orchestrated the entire thing in order to satisfy otherwise impossible engineering demands. It appears I was right. The question then becomes, what happens next? Where does VW go from here? Electric. Obviously.
Elon Musk recently penned a letter to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) urging them to focus on the future rather than the past, when deciding a suitable penalty for Volkswagen. His suggestion was to compel Volkswagen to gradually transition to electric vehicle production away from diesel, rather than simply making them pay fines for damage already done.
Tbe proposal enumerates five points:
1./ Release VW from its obligation to fix diesel cars already on the road in California, which represent an insignificant portion of total vehicles emissions in the State, and which cars do not, individually, present any emissions-related risk to their owners or occupants
2./ Instead, direct VW to accelerate greatly its rollout of zero emission vehicles, which by their very nature, have zero emissions and thus present zero opportunities for cheating, and also do not require any enforcement dollars to verify
3./ Require that this acceleration of the rollout of zero emissions vehicles by VW result in a 10 for 1 or greater reduction in pollutant emissions as compared to the pollution associated with the diesel fleet cheating, and achieve this over the next 5 years
4./ Require that VW invest in new manufacturing plants and/or research and development, in the amounts that they otherwise would have been fined, and do so in California to the extent that California would have been allocated its share of the fines
5./ Allow VW some flexibility in the execution and timing of this plan by allowing it to be implemented via zero emission vehicle credits.
(Emphasis added.) This is really clever, and effectively repurposes any punishment as a legitimate, forward thining remedy rather than a retroactively targeted reprimand.
Elon Musk has often said that the diesel scandal underscored the fundamental problem with conventional fuel technology: it’s effectively reached its limits, with auto manufactures batting their heads against ever shrinking marginal gains. In plainer terms, there’s only so much efficinecy we can eek out of liquified dino remains. Time to move on. Enough is enough.
While there’s been no word yet on the CARB’s response to this letter, VW seems to be headed in this direction: according to VW Group, CEO Matthias Müller will soon reveal its plans to introduce 20 new electric vehicles by decade’s end, i.e., within the next four years. Müller confirmed this news with a remarkably tongue-in-cheek stab at Tesla, Google, and Apple, declaring that “the automotive future should not be left to Silicon Valley.”
While 20 new electric vehicles within four years may sound like a futile goal, electric vehicles in this case is defined broadly to include plug-in hybrids. Still, it’s an impressive target, to be sure. Also, remember that the VW Group is an umbrella company that includes not only Volkswagen, but also Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti, Skoda, and SEAT, to speak nothing of its additional commercial brands.
And while a purely electrified Bugatti or Lambo doesn’t make much sense (yet), the heart-meltingly gorgeous Porsche Mission E is slated for launch in 2020, while Audi has been slowly pushing forward with its e-Tron line of vehicles. And let’s not forget the deliciously awesome all-electric BUDD-e (get it?) microbus concept from VW promising a whopping 373 miles of range from a collossal 101 kWh battery pack (for comparison, the top of the line Tesla Model S and X pack 90 kWh packs and tend to do around 270 miles per charge).
The point is, whether the CARB decides to implement Musk’s suggestion, and whether VW chooses to admit it, moving towards a fully- or partially-electrified fleet of vehicles, and away from diesel or gasoline — isn’t just clever, it’s arguably necessary.
VW has irreparably tarnished its image. This means that restoring the public’s trust isn’t likely by trying to remedy the harm already done, but rather providing a distraction and showing of good faith with something newer, grander, and so radically forward thinking, that it effectively causes the public to just forget about its dirty transgressions, even if it’s not explicitly forgiven.
To put it a different way, VW has a chance not merely to make things right, but to take the lead in electric car development in the 2020s. Where once they were the masters of diesel propulsion, now they can become the masters of electric. And while they can never delete from the history books the scandalous mess they got themselves into, they have a chance now to profoundly influence the future, not just for the benefit of their own brand, but for humanity itself.