Volkswagen’s illegal pollution could cause thousands of early deaths

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The Volkswagen logo is seen at the company’s display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. (GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

500 Germans could lose a decade

Excess air pollution produced by Volkswagen cars designed to cheat on emissions tests may lead to 1,200 early deaths in Europe, according to a new study.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers determined that the automaker’s home country, Germany, will be the hardest hit by the emissions-rigging scandal, with 500 people losing as much of a decade of their lives.

The death toll could be even more dramatic if the company doesn’t find a way to quickly get its high-emissions cars off the road, the study warned.

Another 2,600 people could die prematurely if Volkswagen doesn’t recall all its defective cars — which include models from its brands VW, Audi, Skoda, and Seat — by the end of the year and outfit them to comply with European emissions standards. Making the vehicles more eco-friendly would also likely save Europe 4.1 billion euros in healthcare costs related to pollution.  

The same team of researchers previously determined that Volkswagen’s emissions cheating was directly responsible for about 60 premature deaths in the U.S.

But the death toll is slated to be much worse in Europe because more defective cars were sold there. Of the 11 million emissions-cheating vehicles, 2.6 million — a little less than a quarter of them — were sold in Germany. Just 482,000 were unloaded in the U.S.

Germany’s neighbors are expected to be impacted by the emissions as well. About 160 in Poland, 84 in France, and 72 in the Czech Republic can be expected to die early. The remaining 384 premature deaths anticipated by the study would be distributed throughout the rest of Europe.

“Air pollution is very much transboundary,” Steven Barrett, a professor at MIT and the study’s coauthor, said. “A car in Germany can easily have significant impacts in neighboring countries.”

‘We have totally screwed up’

In September 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused the German company of violating the Clean Air Act after studies showed its cars emissions’ reports varied dramatically between road performance and in tests.

That same day, the German car giant admitted to installing “defeat” software in 11 million cars. The program can determine when a car is being tested for emissions output by how the steering wheel is turned and adjust engine performance to pass it, effectively making cars look like they are producing less pollution than they actually are.

Volkswagen was the most apologetic in the U.S., where its local chief executive Michael Horn took to the stage at a launch event days after the company’s admission to express regret and remorse.

“We have totally screwed up,” he said. “We have to make things right, with the government, the public, our customers, our employees and also very important, our dealers.”

In January, the company pled guilty to cheating emissions tests in the U.S., admitting that it issued false statements and obstructed suspicious officials’ investigations into the warped numbers. It agreed to pay $4.3 billion in penalties on top of the billions It had already promised to drivers and dealers.

But Volkswagen has been less forthcoming in Europe. While it has admitted that millions of its vehicles on European roads have the defeat software, in January 2016, the car maker insisted that such software is not illegal under European laws. Volkswagen has so far refused to pay any compensation for its defective European cars.

Fiat Chrysler and more?

Volkswagen may not be the only car company cheating on its emissions tests.

In January — on the day after Volkswagen pleaded guilty to breaking U.S. regulations — the EPA accused Fiat Chrysler of installing similar defeat software on its diesel pickup trucks. The agency called the software “a clear and serious violation of the Clean Air Act.” Fiat Chrysler initially denied the accusations, but has since announced that it’s conducting its own investigation.

The EPA has not yet fined that automaker, but the agency is allowed to charge car companies $44,539 per vehicle for the violations of the Clean Air Act. The maximum fine against Fiat Chrysler would be $4.6 billion.

The MIT researchers also acknowledged that the emissions problem likely isn’t isolated to Volkswagen, and the team said it plans to conduct more studies on other automakers’ impact.

“It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions,” Barrett, the professor, said. “There is already evidence that many other vehicles in practice emit more than the applicable test-stand limit value.”