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The Emissionary Position: Volkswagen Takes the N0x

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For more than a quarter of a century, the world’s carmakers have been pursuing unrealistic targets, set for them by regulatory authorities with political origins and an eye on winning brownie points from increasingly vocal ecologists.

With its demand-driven rapid turnover of products, the auto-industry was the obvious subject of these targets. Power stations, whether coal, oil or gas-fired, don’t do rapid response and would take lifetimes to clean up their act in any meaningful way, and the so-called zero pollution of nuclear power, in a ironic parallel, gains the appellation by hiding the pollution away for future generations to solve.

An industry whose vital spark is innovation was inspired by the challenges and, in a few short years, enabled the century-old internal combustion engine to multiply its power output and reduce its unpleasant side-effects so dramatically – even miraculously – that it put the then game-changing new developments with hydrogen fuel cells and electric propulsion into a shade from which it is still trying to emerge.

Diesel engines used to be noisy and smelly. They are neither now. They used to be fairly rough old pluggers that went on for years and used far less fuel than their gasoline/petrol equivalents.

They still do that. It was not unusual for the old Peugeot/Citroën indirect-injection XUD diesel to knock up 200 thousand miles. When it was replaced by the HDi common-rail that brought in double the refinement and even better fuel consumption figures, even Citroën’s own people didn’t believe it would be as long-lived. A taxi local to me achieved 300 thousand before it was withdrawn on grounds of age.

That technology only brings us up to the end of the last century. What’s been achieved since is staggering, mainly thanks to ever greater refinements in electronics.

I remember the head of the UK Volkswagen press office, Paul Bucket, warning that it was inevitably a game of diminishing returns, at least five years ago.

But only recently the emphasis has moved back from diesel to petrol power. By using the kinds of pressure that exist in common rail diesels and studying optimum efficiencies, petrol engines have been developed that don’t need to be 2-litre plus to have any poke. They don’t need to be V6 or V8, either. The most exciting new engines are between 1.0 and 1.3 litres. They have three cylinders, and they can provide as much or more torque than a 2-litre four. They sound better and they rev better, thanks to the much reduced friction and weight of the missing pot.

Even more surprisingly, they come very close to diesel in terms of fuel economy, even with large people carrier bodies.

And, of course, gasoline doesn’t emit the nitrous oxide implicated in smog generation.

By the time the pressures on engineers to achieve results became too extreme to be achievable with current science, they were all fully versed in the worlds of electronics and digital jiggery pokery.

They thought, by programming their already heavily programmed motors to give the right answers when being interrogated by the test facilities, they would buy themselves the time to cure the N0x problem.

It might have worked. The VW group, fairly certainly, were not the only people doing it.

They got found out and will have to take the hit on the recalls and the fines. It’s unlikely the regulators will take the cars off the road, so the loyal customers will return after a period of contemplation.

They didn’t frack half the country creating poisonous water, and they didn’t bury nuclear waste in our children’s gardens.

In that quarter century they’ve done more than any other industry to ameliorate the impact of their products on the blue planet.

And they’ll crack this one too, in time.

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Dave Randle is a British author and journalist with 30 years experience in print and online media. His latest book, Blinded with Science, is published by Bank House Books and is available from all major retailers. He can be contacted at daverandlemcij@aol.com

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