It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Talk is Cheap

This just has the status of internet rumor from where I'm sitting but I'd like to call your attention to this article:

New cars, including the Mercedes A, C and E class, BMW 5 series and Peugeot 308, are now swallowing around 50% more fuel than their lab test results reveal, according to new on-the-road results compiled by NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). T&E calls for a comprehensive investigation into both air pollution and fuel economy tests across Europe and a complete overhaul of the testing system. 
Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at T&E, said: “Like the air pollution test, the European system of testing cars to measure fuel economy and COemissions is utterly discredited. The Volkswagen scandal was just the tip of the iceberg and what lies beneath is widespread abuse by carmakers of testing rules enabling cars to swallow more than 50% more fuel than is claimed.”
Again, I am not saying that one article convinces me that this is the case. But I find it entirely plausible.

I think this is informative for the larger question of how Kyoto failed and how Paris is likely to fail.

Everyone is motivated to express enthusiasm for global goals and cut corners on the obligations for their own sector, their own business, and their own individual activities.

This adds in to how there is a gradual diminution of concern from climate experts, to IPCC WG I, to the impacts and adaptation groups, to the bureaucracy, to the public.

The net result is lots of cheap talk and very little expensive action.

To me this all argues that there needs to be a profound cultural shift; that a little regulatory pressure is not enough. Is complying with the letter of the law rather than its spirit an essential feature of the modern world, rather than an anomaly? Is modest regulation enough? Or do we all have to change how we think at a more fundamental level, as Pope Francis urges?

UPDATE: The Guardian is running with similar claims.


Rob Ryan said...

This (the statement and its backup) is kind of right up my alley and I'll certainly look closely but, just in the quickest of overviews, the article says "...are now swallowing around 50% more fuel than their lab test results reveal, according to new on-the-road results compiled by NGO Transport & Environment (T&E)." I found that to be implausible. The article to which it links says "This report analyses the gap between test results and real-world performance and finds that it has become a chasm, increasing from 8% in 2001 to 31% in 2012 and 40% in 2014. Without action this gap will grow to nearly 50% by 2020." That's still reprehensible if true, but not the same thing "now swallowing 50% more fuel."

That article, in turn, links to the actual study and to an infographic. The inforgraphic is, imho, misleading since some of the items implied to be cheating are things that people (I) do to actually very significantly outperform EPA mileage estimates. I acknowledge that it's European testing, with which the details of I'm unfamiliar.

I do intend to review and evaluate the actual paper, I still find it difficult to accept that vehicles use 40% more fuel than the tests imply.

Finally, yes, I realize that I'm picking at a single instance that you've cited and that you're addressing the broad concern.

Florifulgurator said...

So, I wont by me a new VW. I was worried about my old VW from 1999 which does 35 US mpg. Seems still good enough. And that old thing is still repairable and has no software glitches (except it shows 50000km instead of 350000 - the only digital thing in the car couldn't count beyond 3...).

Michael Tobis said...

Rob, as I said I wasn't sure of this particular accusation. As I always say, all of human knowledge is on the internet and some of it is true. And I greatly appreciate any corrections.

But VW's behavior does betray a certain "whatever we can get away with" in the corporate sector, which is why these accusations don't seem implausible.

If our times of employment are about pursuit of money and we are only allowed ethics in our spare time, the necessity for a fierce and finely honed regulatory system goes up. What's more, if people standing for election think about power in that way, and by all appearances they do, we don't have the capacity to regulate the system to align with our ethics.

In short, I am worried that what we are doing doesn't work in the modern world that it so successfully created. A behavior that is all about optimization pushes boundaries, and also tries to ooze around them and remove them. But what it optimizes is not automatically the well-being of the whole.

Rob Ryan said...

Certainly, as I mentioned, your viewpoint is much wider than the VW cheat and the European test standards. But the VW situation WAS a cheat and, ultimately, they were found out and so their analysis of "whatever we can get away with" was flawed.

I haven't had time to review the study, the academic quarter has started, but I will do so.

Generally speaking, I agree with the need you perceive for regulation. The temptations to cheat are huge, from a business owner's point of view it sometimes feels like we will lose 100% of our opportunities to cheaters if we don't cheat.

That said, the compliance cost of regulations that accomplish nothing with respect to their stated aims but generate a spectacularly large industry of exploiters of various kinds is also malignant. I have no solution to propose, something I frown upon when our people bring me a problem. Shame on me.

Rob Ryan said...

Again, I realize you're looking at this example as a symptom of a much bigger problem (justifiably so) whereas I'm looking at just the example. But the aspect of the first paper that makes it difficult to believe doesn't apply to the Guardian article. The first has to do with fuel consumption. This is something with which the vehicle's purchaser is intimately acquainted and it's hard to believe that no one would notice or fail to squawk at high volume if they were using 40% more fuel than advertised. In Europe, I believe, fuel economy is sensibly measured in liters/100 kilometers. The equivalent US metric of m.p.g. would be a 29% lower number which would surely be highly publicized. If a large group of people purchase cars expecting 40 m.p.g. and get 29 m.p.g., it won't go on for long without making the blogs, FB posts, tweets, newspapers, etc.

The Guardian article is discussing NOx emissions, something which a driver has absolutely no way of knowing.

Ric said...

So many references to x% of something cause me to stop and think hmm, so y/z*100 = x. But I don't see a careful definition of y and z, why their ratio matters, and what factors might reasonably affect the ratio.

I've driven a popular hybrid electric car for a decade, with a dashboard display of mpg in the last 6 5-minute intervals, and cumulative mpg since last reset. If I can assume OK accuracy of filling station gallons and car odometer, which I tracked for years, the dashboard display is pretty accurate. I wouldn't be amazed or shocked if it somehow is usually a couple percent optimistic. But it's not way off. And, the long-term mpg is very close to the the EPA sticker figure.

But that hides tremendous variation with driving conditions. You can natter ad infinitum about careful driving, AC, heat, open windows, blah, blah, but the big factor is temperature. Outside temperature, and whether the engine is warm. After that comes traffic conditions (hills, stops), and after that, within reason, comes speed on the open highway, if applicable.

With favorable conditions (moderate weather, warm engine, empty suburban boulevard or rural road at 40-50 mph), you can nearly double the average figure without doing anything weird.

The first 5-10 minutes from a cold start in a Wisconsin winter is harder to measure, but I'm pretty sure it's well under half the average.

And many of these conditions vary greatly from one car owner and region to another.

We certainly can't exclude chicanery by manufacturers, but before raising a hue and cry about that, I'd ask who is defining and measuring just what.

Michael Tobis said...

Regarding what to do, corporations may have limited liability, but that doesn't give them limited culpability. People involved in the perpetration of conscious fraud should do time.