MIT: Volkswagen Dieselgate emissions will cause 1,200 (or more!) premature deaths in Europe

March 6, 2017

The ongoing Dieselgate crisis has been a major headache for Volkswagen employees, investors, vehicle owners, dealers, and diesel fans for nearly a year and a half. Though the scandal appears to be winding down--at least in the U.S.--a new study suggests that Volkswagen's troubles could be far from over. 

The study comes from scientists at the revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who've examined the atmospheric impact of additional nitric oxides (NOx) that Volkswagen diesels have illegally emitted. They project that that excess pollution from the 2.6 million affected vehicles registered in Germany alone will result in 1,200 premature deaths--and perhaps many more, unless Volkswagen acts quickly to fix the affected cars.


To reach that conclusion, the MIT team ran simulations that involved a complex array of data points, including the number of illegally rigged diesels registered in Germany and the distances those cars drive in a given year. That provided them with a rough idea of the volume of NOx the cars emit annually.

Then, they determined how those automobiles were clustered across the country and what the atmospheric conditions were like in those areas. That gave them a sense of where the NOx would be most concentrated and how it would travel in the air. 

Germans not the only ones at risk

The MIT team's conclusions are alarming, to say the least. Excess NOx emitted between 2008 and 2015 will result in roughly 1,200 additional deaths across Europe, with each person dying about ten years earlier than they ordinarily would. The deaths will be caused not only by the NOx itself, which has has been linked to cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, but also by ozone created by the NOx.

Germans will suffer more than those in other countries, experiencing 500 premature deaths. But the remaining 700 fatalities will occur in countries elsewhere in Europe, as pollutants are carried on the wind. Poland, for example, will see 160 premature deaths, with 84 in France and 72 in the Czech Republic.

And it gets worse: if Volkswagen doesn't fix Germany's 2.6 million Audi, Seat, Skoda, and VW diesels by the end of 2017, the number of premature deaths could soar far, far higher--2,600 by MIT's estimates, with some 4.1 billion Euros in associated health costs.

The same researchers previously determined that emissions from 482,000 rigged Audi and VW 2.0-liter diesels in the U.S. would cause 60 premature deaths. The team's estimate in this study is much higher because there are 5.3 times as many affected vehicles registered in Germany and because of differences in distribution and driving habits:

"For instance, Europe's average population density is about three times higher than the U.S. average, and historical data has shown that diesel cars in Germany are driven on average 20 percent more, in terms of annual mileage, compared to the average American car that was considered in the U.S. study. In other words, there are more affected cars on the road, generating emissions that affect a higher concentration of people."

What does it all mean?

Beyond the premature deaths--which are bad enough in themselves--MIT's findings could open up Volkswagen to a wider range of lawsuits, much like the wrongful death suits seen in the General Motors ignition switch fiasco

Granted, it would be harder for plaintiffs to prove that their illness or their loved one's death was caused by NOx emitted by one of Volkswagen's illegally equipped diesels--far more difficult than in cases involving GM's faulty switches or Taktata's fatally flawed airbags. And of course, German law doesn't allow for class-action suits the way American law does.

However, German courts have shown that they're not inclined to let Volkswagen off the hook because of a few legal restrictions. That could spell even greater financial trouble for the automaker.

Far worse, however, is the fact that Germany's 2.6 million diesels only account for about a third of the 8.5 million Dieselgate-tainted vehicles registered in Europe. In other words, the fallout from the Dieselgate scandal--literally and figuratively--could get much, much worse unless Volkswagen acts now.

Note: for purposes of clarity, "Volkswagen" has been used to refer to the Volkswagen Group parent company, while "VW" has been used to refer to the company's popular mass-market brand of automobiles.

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