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Society has variable expectations about the integrity with which people conduct themselves.
"It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it." -Benjamin Franklin
When I was an assistant professor, my faculty colleagues and I parked in an underground lot beneath the clinic. A friend of mine, also a faculty member, drove a German-made car with a diesel engine. One day we arrived at the same time and I teased him about his car.
“I don’t consider myself a tree hugger, but I wish I didn’t have to breathe that diesel exhaust first thing in the morning,” I complained.
“You’ve got it all wrong. My engine ‘s emissions are lower than yours, plus the diesel fuel costs less with great fuel economy,” he responded.
My colleague is today a very famous ophthalmologist and department chair, and hopefully a loyal Ophthalmology Times reader. I admired that he was smart enough to learn that this car was so well-engineered before he made his purchase decision. And I remember wishing that American car companies could produce products with the same quality, fuel efficiency and environmental performance as foreign manufacturers.
But the last couple of days have shown that the particular manufacturer of my friend’s car had gamed the emissions-testing system and that, perhaps, my concern about breathing his exhaust was well-founded. Engineers at West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE) rented diesel vehicles made by the company and measured their tailpipe emissions on the road and compared them to the measurements made on the same cars in the lab. The CAFEE publicly presented and published that the discrepancies were huge.
The Environmental Protection Agency heard the presentation and spent a year investigating. The EPA says the company “resisted for a while, then it admitted that it had deliberately cheated.”
Apparently some employees of the company figured out how to turn off the catalytic converter that removes nitrous oxides (NOx) from the exhaust. So, under real-life conditions, the cars emitted 40 or 50 times the maximally allowed levels of NOx and, because the converter needs to be hot (using more fuel) in order to work, the mileage of the vehicles was much better. The diabolical part of the scheme is that somehow the vehicles’ software is able to tell when they are being inspected for emissions and, while the formal testing is being performed, turn their catalytic converters back on.
So congratulations to the engineers at West Virginia University for doing some straightforward measurements and not ignoring results that didn’t make sense. And shame on the people who, if news reports of the company’s admissions are accurate, deliberately rigged 11 million cars to pollute over a period of at least seven years.
I have no idea how many employees of the company were in on what a publication of IEEE called “perhaps the biggest corporate cybercrime of all time”, but I think it is likely that most of the people who work there are decent, hardworking and honest and as shocked as the rest of us. But their reputation is now destroyed.
Probably our society has variable expectations about the integrity with which people conduct themselves. Our professional athletes, for example, seem to commonly misbehave. But clergy, engineers and physicians are professions where the expectations are high when it comes to conduct, and where reputations built over many years can be destroyed in an instant.