Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The great Volkwagen emissions scandal. Or rather a great political science scandal

Is it just me who finds the VW emissions “scandal” a jaw dropper? The same VW group, by the way, that owns Ducati along with all the other marques in the picture.
Not jaw dropping because I didn’t think motor manufacturers were fiddling emission declarations, but because I assumed our self-serving masters knew about it but were happy to at least look as if they were doing something about the environment.

But it turns out they really didn’t know, because none of them have even a passing knowledge of engineering, the experimental method or – god forbid – science. It even turns out that the UK’s House of Commons science committee is chaired by someone with a degree in – get this – dance. I suppose it makes a change from the usual blagger’s charter of politics, philosophy and economics favoured by most of the folk who run this country.

But with the rise of technology driving wealth for anybody outside the city, you’d hope for better. Google and Amazon are changing our society, yet I’d wager the aforementioned chair of the science committee doesn't even have a science A level. Land Rover Jaguar – about our most valuable manufacturing company – can’t recruit enough engineers. This might be a good thing, with our youngest about to start a MechEng degree at Warwick, which is establishing a joint academy with Land Rover Jaguar. Further good news is that almost 80% of Warwick’s engineering graduates are working in engineering within 6 months of qualifying. There just aren’t enough folk with science A levels – never mind degrees – to satisfy our needs.

Yet when was the last time we had a Prime Minister with an engineering or science degree? Ironically it’s back at the point we started out on the farce of emission control that has always seemed to me – as always - more about being seen to do something, rather than actually grasping the nettle.

Margaret Thatcher (yes it was she – Chemistry from Oxford, and married to a former BP executive) was championing British Leyland’s lean burn technology (her Marxist haters might want to read that again), reasoning it was cheap and that using less fuel would, ergo, mean lower emissions. But the Americans wanted a simpler fix for their gas guzzlers, and pushed their platinum catalytic converter technology instead. Never mind that this meant mining, refining and transporting platinum, it was their technology and a quick fix. And also never mind that lead in petrol buggered the catalyst because the US had already phased its use in fuel out, where Europe hadn’t quite got there. So we’ve gone from a time when lead from vehicles was commercially viable to collect from road junctions, to a time when the same is now true of platinum. Oh, the irony. Maybe we should have just handed our lean burn technology over to the Americans, just as we did with the A-bomb and jet engine.

Of course the fragile catalytic convertors needed all sort of technology to protect them from too much or too little fuel, being too hot or too cold, and so on. Eventually engineers realised the same sensors and controls could spot when an emissions test was being run – a certain distance at a certain speed, for instance – and make sure the emissions and noise levels complied with legislation. The rest of the time it’s a free for all which is why in practice some cars and motorcycles can’t meet track day noise requirements, despite complying with them in theory.

Yes, VW took this one step further with a urea tank that only supplied the exhaust system's diffuser under test circumstances, but it’s surely just another step into this cheaters charter that’s been going on for decades. Or maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps it can all be explained by interpretive dance rather than by science.

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