Volkswagen lied. But Elon Musk is dead wrong about diesel cars

VW defrauded its customers by attempting to sell diesel as environmentally friendly under the EPA's ridiculous emissions rules. But that doesn't mean diesel is bad, or that EV's are the immediate future of transportation.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on

I learned of the Volkswagen emissions scandal quickly. Not so much because it was on Twitter and all over the news, but because I am a proud owner of a 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI and everyone who knows me has heard me rave about it.

Scratch that, I'm not just a proud owner of a TDI. I'm a diesel technology fanboy. I've even gone as far to call the vehicle I drive the Car of the Future.

That future, because of Volkswagen's admission that they purposely rigged their emissions tests with a sophisticated software algorithm programmed in every TDI's embedded systems engine control unit may now be in jeopardy.

Right now I am not sure who I am supposed to be more angry at.

Should I be angry at Volkswagen, which has thrown decades of trust and brand leadership out the window with one incredibly stupid, arrogant and criminal action perpetrated on eleven million of its customers in the US and Europe?

Latest review

Or should I be angry at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the State of California which set emission standards so ridiculously high in 2004 for light trucks and passenger cars as part of the Clean Air Act that it was impossible even for the brightest automotive engineers at the most successful car company by sales in the world to figure out how to produce a "clean" small diesel engine?

I've received email and comments from family and friends asking me if my car has a "problem". People on my Facebook feed have also posted derisive images, usually with Volkswagen cars producing clouds of billowing black smoke along with some stupid pithy joke.

Yes, you self-righteous jerks, I get it. My precious Volkswagen car is a filthy TDI. You know what else is producing noxious fumes? Your ass.

Here's the thing though. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with my car. The TDI platform is extremely reliable and well-performing, with a 26 year-long operational history to prove it.

And while Volkswagen falsified Nitrogen Oxide emissions data (not carbon emissions -- diesel produces far less carbon emissions than gasoline and my 1995 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a far worse emissions car in that department) you cannot falsify the fact that up until the time the scandal broke, the Passat TDI garnered rave reviews and strong buy recommendations from automotive publications.

The car has also set unprecedented mileage records by multiple independent parties, which cannot be falsified.

So what is the best outcome? In my view, Volkswagen needs to fix the cars so that they meet emission standards without sacrificing engine performance.

If that's not possible -- and knowing what I know about the technology, that may very well be the case -- the EPA and its European counterparts need to make them pay a very large fine, in addition to monetarily compensating owners of TDI cars, because we bought them under the auspices of the car being environmentally clean in addition to the TDI's reputation of durability, peppy performance and excellent mileage.

For TDI owners, satisfactorily compensating us (in addition to making the regulatory agencies happy) might mean extending our warranty out another 10 years for free. It might mean giving us all cash for the extra money we spent on TDI variants of the vehicles, which is anywhere between $4000 and $7000 depending on the model and year.

It may also be cheaper in the long run to satisfy the EPA and its counterparts in Europe by buying back every single vehicle, just to take them off the road.

I don't know what the future holds for Volkswagen, Audi and the TDI platform. Or what this may also mean for other diesel passenger car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which are now also under the EPA microscope to determine if they are using similar methods in their emissions tests.

[Editor's Note: On September 27, Germany's Federal Motor Transport Authority has issued an ultimatum to Volkswagen signed by its transport minister Alexander Dobrindt, that it must present a solution to the TDI problem within 10 days, by October 7, or 2.8 million vehicles will be not permitted to drive on the country's roads.]

What I can say is that my car probably has little or no re-sale value now, and unless one of the things above I described transpire, I'll drive it until it dies -- which knowing what I know about these cars, will be a very long time from now.

As if the jackasses on my Facebook feed making "Too Soon" jokes wasn't enough, Tesla CEO and SpaceX wunderkind Elon Musk decided to use the Volkswagen emissions scandal as an opportunity to push electric cars as the real future of transportation.

I'll give Elon Musk credit for noting that it is Carbon emissions from gasoline, not NOx from diesel that is the real problem that is threatening our environment and contributing to global warming.

I like Tesla. I think Elon Musk is a super-bright dude. I might even replace my 1995 Mercedes with a Tesla Model S sedan, although I may try to haggle a deal on an A6 TDI soon. I mean, it's not like Audi now has customers lined up to buy them, and the 3.0L TDI engine could very well end up on the EPA's black list shortly along with its 2.0L counterpart used in VWs and the Audi A3.

And at the end of the day, diesel fuel for all of this bad press isn't going away -- it's essential to interstate and international commerce for big rigs, boats and trains, and plenty of non-commercial pickup trucks are sold with diesel engines. Passenger rail in the United States is very much dependent on diesel as well.

Go ahead and try to pull a trailer or an equally heavy load with a gasoline truck. You ain't got the torque, bud.

However, Elon Musk is correct that electric vehicles are the future. But what he forgot to tell you is that in order to realize that future, our national power infrastructure needs a major upgrade.

Part of that infrastructure improvement, in addition to increasing grid capacity, will almost certainly involve the use of nuclear energy to replace the coal and natural gas which is being burned in power plants to generate the electricity those Teslas and EVs like it will run on.

If you think NOx emissions from eleven million Volkswagen TDIs is bad, just think about how awful all those power plants in North America, Europe and China burning coal is.

Yeah, you heard me, nukes. Does that scare you? If it does, it's because you've been subjected to decades of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, also known as FUD. Nuclear energy has been a victim of NIMBYism for so long that most people, particularly self-described environmentalists are unaware just how far the technology has evolved, and just how safe it is now.

If you have Netflix, I urge you to check out Pandora's Promise, which outlines the pros and cons of nuclear energy in unbiased detail.

Reactors can now be built that cannot "melt down" and can recycle 20 percent of their fissionable material for re-use -- just ask the US Navy, they've been using breeder reactors for years.

They can also fit 20 years of nuclear waste from one of these reactors into a lead container vessel the size of a household refrigerator, and we have the perfect place to put it all, in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository we've already spent billions and billions of dollars boring tunnels in.

Here is the crux of the problem as I see it -- any solution that involves moving to renewable and "greener" sources of energy and clean transportation also has to involve energy independence.

Everyone hates the situation in the Middle East. We've waged endless unpopular wars and continue to provide a strong military presence there to inextricably protect a natural resource which we've become addicted to -- petroleum.

Our country and our allies have suffered acts of terrorism and watched the area de-stabilize with every failed attempt at making the situation better, through multiple Republican and Democrat-led administrations.

The automotive industry knows how to build diesel engines. We might not be able to make them "cleaner", but ultimately, they are far less of a threat to our fragile environment than gasoline-based ones.

What's even more important about diesel is that it would allow the United States and Europe to become energy independent and would allow us to extricate ourselves from most of the Middle East (with the notable exception of having to protect Israel, which should be considered an essential extension of Silicon Valley and our Biotech/Pharmaceuticals industries) particularly if we were to switch to biodiesel-based fuels rather than petroleum gasoline.

And Vladimir Putin's Russia? Yeah, we can stop buying oil from him too if we move to diesel.

I suppose you're wondering how we would accomplish this. Simple.

Those vast corn fields producing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that is making all of us die of diabetes being used in virtually every food product you buy at the supermarket? We divert a large portion of it to industrial hemp in order to produce biofuel, which is just one of many industrial and commercial applications for hemp, such as cooking oil, edible plant matter, fibers and composites.

We can also use land that cannot be used for food-bearing crops to grow it. And some of it we use for the THC and CBD-rich strains for legalized pharmaceutical and recreational use, and then regulate and tax the hell out of it.

Hemp is just one of several good candidates that we could use as biomass for diesel. There are others, but in terms of how many revenue-producing industries that could be spawned from it there are few, if any that compare to it.

I'm not suggesting that we move to diesel-based cars as a permanent mechanism. Eventually, if we really want to put millions of EVs on the road, as well as provide power to homes and businesses, we will need to build that improved electrical grid, which will have to include nuclear energy as well as solar in the mix.

But if we move off gasoline, coal, natural gas and petroleum, we're still going to need biofuel for aviation, marine and commercial transport for a very long time, if not indefinitely.

One path to moving towards a predominantly EV-based transportation infrastructure would be to create small diesel generators that could be used to make extended-range EVs, like the Chevy Volt, which uses a 1.4L gasoline generator when the batteries that power the electrical drivetrain run out.

But a small diesel generator in an EV would make the range much, much higher, without the requirement for a national charging infrastructure which we would need to support millions of EVs.

And like the generator on the Chevy Volt, it also wouldn't need to run all the time, so it would reduce the impact of NOx emissions greatly.

It probably shouldn't surprise you that Volkswagen created a 261MPG concept car that was in fact, a diesel-electric hybrid. Despite all of the negative press that the company is now deservedly getting, this is exactly the kind of car that we all should be driving.

Other than the outrageous cost of their cars -- which I think will eventually be solved by production at scale and licensing of the technology to other automakers -- Tesla's biggest problem right now is the range of its vehicles.

This problem is exacerbated by the lack of a robust national charging network, and it's also going to need to produce high-capacity lithium ion batteries at tremendous scale if it wants to get millions of cars on the road. Tesla's current car production can be measured in the tens of thousands.

This is no mean feat.

I don't think it's realistic that we're going to get Tesla charging stations everywhere that would enable interstate travel using Elon Musk's technology exclusively, and well, there's that niggling coal and natural gas plant issue that puts his own and very real Carbon Emissions concerns into full view.

You can build all the lithium-ion batteries in "Gigafactories" that you want, but it doesn't fix the problem at the source of where much of the pollution is occurring.

The electric car emperor isn't wearing any clothes, unless you live in Washington State where 29 percent of the nation's hydro electrics generating capacity is located. I just got back from a visit to Microsoft's campus and there are Teslas everywhere. There's a good reason why.

Range and charging infrastructure is not the only issue. For those of us that live in areas that are prone to power infrastructure that can fail due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, we need a EV car that has an alternative means to charge its engine if the grid goes down.

I don't think that diesel fuel cars need to or should become the next energy pariah. In fact, we now need diesel more than ever, and we also need nuclear as well as solar energy and an upgraded electrical grid if we are to become energy independent and provide security, employment and a stable economy for our nation.

Volkswagen should be forced to make things right with its US and European customers. But the future of diesel should not and cannot be made a casualty of their mistakes. Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards