Cars News and Reviews What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car- CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Sunday

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?

Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs. I did know about the particulate emissions but made a conscious decision that the low carbon emissions was worth the added pollution, especially since I live in a small town where the dust from unpaved roads make a larger contribution to the particulate levels in the air.

But I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

The fix will very probably decrease the power of the car - I don't mind that: the 2.0L engine is too much for a car this size anyway. But it may also decrease the overall fuel efficiency. And nobody can say right now by how much.

I don't know about you, but getting rid of the car and buying a new one is not in the cards for me right now. And because it's the only car in our family, that's the one I will have to keep driving until this gets sorted out. It could be a while, as the smoggy cloud surrounding the scandal seems to keep spreading, with every passing day implicating more cars, more countries, and possibly other car makers as well, and with lawyers licking their chops over the impending law suits.

What to do in the mean time?

First, find out if the car you own is affected. The rogue software is installed in the following models, manufactured in the last few years:

2009 - 2015 VW Jetta TDI
2009 - 2014 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI
2010 - 2015 VW Golf TDI
2015 VW Golf Sportwagen TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Beetle TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Beetle Convertible TDI
2012 - 2015 VW Passat TDI
2010 - 2015 Audi A3 TDI

Wait a minute: that last one is not a Volkswagen. Right! But Audi is part of the Volkswagen group, and the Audi A3 shares a platform with the VW Beetle, Golf and Jetta (plus a few models in the Skoda and Seat lineups).

What you do next depends on your circumstance, and in particular where you live exactly. The following assumes that you are sound of body, and willing to do a bit more work to keep the particulate pollution from your diesel car from your neighbours.

If you live in the city:

Park your car and walk, ride your bike, or take the bus or the subway. You know, whenever you practically can. Meet your neighbours. Beg a ride from friends to go to your farmer's market, and make them dinner in return. Find creative ways to get around without using the four wheels - hey, maybe you will find that the hassle of maintaining those wheels aren't worth the convenience you get from it.

If you live outside the city:

In small towns and rural areas you don't have much of a choice, as distances are larger and public transportation more sparse if they exist at all. Plan your errands to minimise your total miles: shop for groceries on the way home from work, and plan ahead to do all your errands in the same general area on the same trip. Which can save you a lot of time as well as money and emissions. Walk or take the bike where you can (and where it's safe). Carpool with people who don't have a diesel car.

No matter where you live, on a bright and sunny day your car will make more smog than on overcast or rainy days; this is because the UV light from the sun promotes smog formation. So if you have the luxury of timing your errands, try to do them on overcast or rainy days, and walk or bike on the sunny days (that works out in a fortunate way!).

However, if it's not sunny because a pall of smog has parked itself over where you live, don't drive your diesel car. The nanoparticle aerosols already in the air will glom onto the NOx coming out of your tailpipe and form the dangerous particulate pollution.

As with any dangerous air-borne anything (say, the VOCs from painting or from your nail polish), proper ventilation helps a lot. Do your drives on breezy rather than wind-still days. Smog particles actually don't form the instant the NOx leaves your tailpipe: the NOx forms a nucleation center that accretes other tiny particles, and this process can take a few hours (depending on how many of those nanoparticles are around), so it's not like your car is coughing lung-cancer clouds directly onto the cyclists with whom you share the road.

Consider this: your diesel car, even with its rogue software and its high NOx emissions, is still a heck of a lot cleaner than diesel cars and trucks that used to spew those visibly black clouds wherever they went. Also: in the US, particulate pollution comes overwhelmingly from the dust from unpaved roads. My overview of particulate sources is here.

I'm not trying to apologise for the ills of polluting emissions, and certainly not for covering them up. I'm trying to tell you that there is no reason to panic even if you are forced to keep driving your diesel car. By all means, try to stay out of that car as much as possible. But if you must drive it, so be it.

And when it comes to the recall, please do bring in your car to the dealer. I'm hoping the EPA will force VW to pay out for every car that is brought in for the software patch, or however they decide to resolve this. About $500 per car would pretty much guarantee that every car will get fixed. If significant torque (="fun drive") and fuel efficiency is lost, that may have to be more like $1000.

But make no mistake: even though the EPA sets the legal limits for emissions of various substances, in the aggregate driving a car is dangerous and dirty. It's as simple as that. Every car running on fossil fuels, not only the diesel cars, emits a toxic brew of volatile organic compounds and aerosols. And carbon dioxide in spades, more than a pound per mile if your car does 20 mpg.

It comes down to this: Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad.



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Cars News and Reviews The Popemobile is a Fiat 500- CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Wednesday

Pope Francis, arriving in the United States, landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, was enthusiastically greeted by a welcoming committee headed by President Obama and Vice-President Biden, walked the red carpet, was cheered by the crowd inside the terminal building - and drove away in a Fiat 500.

To be precise, it's a Fiat 500L, the larger version with more space in the back. But it's a Fiat 500 nevertheless. And this is fitting for a pope who has chosen simplicity over pomp (just look at the saint whose name he has adopted). This is the man who, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, used to take the bus to work.

And now, Pope Francis has skipped over the Rolls Royces and the Cadillacs, and climbs into a Fiat 500.

Talk about leading by example. He has suddenly made it utterly cool to get into a small car. Not just a small car: the iconic small car.

It is also a fitting start to his US tour, on which he will argue for social justice, which increasingly includes climate justice. His encyclical, Laudato Sí, calls for a radical change in the way we do things, in the interest of the poor and the vulnerable. Getting into a smaller car, for starters. If you haven't yet read the encyclical: it is not long, it is scientifically correct, and it is profoundly moving, even to a non-Catholic like me.

On Thursday, September 24, the Pope is addressing a special joint session of the US Congress. He's expected to spur them on to climate action, which they have been singularly unable to do so far. In support of the Pope and his message, there will be a rally for Moral Action on Climate, out on the National Mall. I intend to be there.

[Of course, Italian newspapers have highlighted the made-in-Italy popemobile. La Reppublica (which has a special section on Vatican affairs) has an entire slide show on the Fiat 500 on the Andrews Air Force Base. It's here; enjoy.]



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Cars News and Reviews "The butler - I mean the software - did it."- CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Monday

This is the 21st century where very few of us have butlers. That's nothing new: it has always been the case that very few people have butlers. But what is new is software, and most of us got that. Software still won't make you a cup of tea, but it sure can act as your personal assistant, your secretary, and your accountant.

And software now runs your car, which is said to be evolving into what's basically a large tablet on wheels. Software regulates the mixture of fuel and air injected into the cylinders of your car's engine, the timing of the ignition, and myriad other housekeeping tasks that used to be performed by mechanical devices.

Like butlers, software can, shall we say, embellish reality. Like a butler compliments his employer on his looks after the elaborate grooming for the dinner party (think Jeeves), so a car's software can be devious. But unlike butlers, who make their own decisions about whether and when to deliver a white lie, software has to be deliberately made deceitful by the people writing it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Volkswagen is fully responsible (and has admitted as much) for installing less-than-honest software in some of its diesel models. The crooked code detects when the car is going through an emissions testing cycle, and adjusts various parameters to minimise emissions of NOx gas. These nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation which is very bad for your lungs.

Outside of the test cycle, that is, under normal driving conditions, the cars affected emit 10 to 40 times the legal limit of NOx.

That stinks.

Cheating the EPA is such a serious infraction that Volkswagen could face fines up to $37,500 per car, which is a lot more than the sale price of the car. Nearly half a million vehicles are affected. Including mine.

Diesel cars are known to surpass the EPA fuel economy specs in real-life driving. My 2012 diesel Golf averages about 38mpg, significantly more than the 34mpg stated in the spec sheets - but I wouldn't want to have that advantage at the expense of spewing all that NOx.

The irony is that the story was uncovered by a team of people who set out to show that diesel engines can run clean, especially now that European governments are starting to put their support less behind the diesel car and more behind electric ones.

So my car will soon get called into the dealership. Just as a butler found to be deceitful gets fired, so the duplicitous software will get removed and replaced with a non-rogue version.

Restoring the NOx emissions to acceptable levels will mean giving up on horsepower or fuel efficiency, or both. If I had a say on the character of the replacement software, I know I'd go for better fuel efficiency over more horsepower, any day.

This engine puts out way too much power for this size car, anyway.



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Cars News and Reviews Wind Parks: Heavenly Vision or Eyesore?- CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Saturday

Here is the vision for our zero-carbon future: Everybody will get around in electric cars. And all the electricity to run those cars will come from renewable sources, like solar and wind, both as good as zero carbon, once you start manufacturing them using energy from solar cells or windmills that you've already built.

Great idea, right?

Another source of renewable energy, hydropower, already provides more than 6 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States in 2015. They were built in a gung-ho time: first their construction gave lots of jobs. Once they were finished, they supplied electricity to growing cities as well as water to both cities and agricultural users. Not to mention the opportunity for water sports, in all those places that would normally not have enough water for a row boat, never mind yachts and water skis.

People love dams. But oddly enough, people don't love wind parks.

That's too bad, because wind is actually one of the most promising sources of clean energy. Already, at 60,000 megawatt (MW) installed capacity, it supplies 4 percent of the electricity used in the nation, and it's growing by leaps and bounds.

Back in 2008 wind already generated 52,000 gigawatt-hours of energy. A gigawatt (GW) is a billion Watts. But those 52,000 GWh is a tiny fraction of how much energy could potentially be generated by wind in the US: That number is mind-bogglingly large: 37,000,000 GWh, or 30 times the nation's entire current electricity consumption. Conveniently, the wind potential is reasonably well-distributed, peaking over a broad swath of the midwestern states as well as at the coasts.


So why aren't we buliding wind parks like mad?

The reason has to do with something that can be neither reasoned, or measured: it is what people consider to be beautiful. People who live near a site where a wind park is proposed tend to say that wind mills are ugly, and mar the beauty of their view. Or that tourists will stop coming to their beach if an offshore wind park is visible from the boardwalk.

I personally beg to differ. I think modern wind mills are rather beautiful, and it always lifts my spirits to see a row of them turning in that stately way. It smells of clean energy: of wind un-burdened by soot particles and mercury and ash; of innovation and ingenuity; of the future.

If I wasn't happily married already, I would not mind getting married on a wind park. As a tourist, I would love to go visit an offshore wind park, which are said to attract, over time, a ecosystem of marine life around their bases where fishing boats cannot come. An offshore wind park is a marine safe zone, and I could easily see going boating or snorkeling there. And afterwards I would go back to the shore and do all the beachy things you do on a beach, all the while admiring the windmills in the distance.

I really don't see the problem with wind mills.

But even as people have enough sense to prefer, when given the choice, a wind mill over a fracking rig in their back yard (duh!), when someone actually wants to build a windmill the heels tend to get dug in deep. Especially when it comes to their sea view.

And that is why most offshore wind parks are in Europe. In 2014 Denmark got 39 percent of its electricity from wind. On one gloriously windy day in July 2015 its wind parks generated 140% of its needs.

In the US, there are no offshore wind farms.

Which is a real shame, because the potential on both coasts is enormous. Those seaside communities could tap into that huge resource, all carbon free. It would bring jobs. The parks would become marine sanctuaries that attract tourists and more jobs.

If you look at it that way, wind parks are beautiful!

Anyway, it beats mountain top coal mining, or digging for tar sands.



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Cars News and Reviews Coal Is Amazing - CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Sunday

The coal industry just badly tore a nail while desperately scrabbling for a handhold, trying to keep itself from sliding down a slippery slope to oblivion. Okay, that "oblivion" bit was wishful thinking on my part, coal will be with us for a while yet, for while it yields the dirtiest form of energy in so many ways, it's also the most plentiful and the cheapest.

But it is, as the Guardian points out, a sign of the coal industry's desperation that it feels the need for a charm offensive. The most recent is the "Coal Is Amazing" ad from the Minerals Council of Australia.

The ad features suggestive landscapes in shades of charcoal grey, with a soft-spoken female voiceover whispering seductive things about coal.

In response, Australians have taken to Twitter and subverted the #CoalIsAmazing hashtag with their own take, peppered with plenty of black humour. Or should that be anthracite humour? All the sarcasm stops have been pulled out in this reaction, the outpouring of disgust completely eclipsing the original intent of the hashtag.

Here are a few samples:


In response to "aesthetic objections" to wind farms:

Referring to the child labour practices of the 19th century when coal drove the Industrial Revolution:

In response to the claim that is it now "40 percent cleaner":

There are, of course, movie references:

But it is this tweet that definitively puts coal with other things that people once thought were a good idea but turned out to be a very bad mistake:

Go ahead, read the #CoalIsAmazing feed for yourself. I bet there are more gems in there.

Is this outpouring of sarcasm going to take down the Australian coal industry? I don't think so. But like any torn nail, this one will annoy the coal lobby for a long time. Because the crowd's countercampaign is sticky. I for one will remember it.



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Cars News and Reviews How to Slash Transportation Emissions- CARS NEWS AND REVIEWS

Posted by Carmella Ross on Saturday

California (who else?) is leading the nation in reducing carbon emissions. The state is gripped in a devastating drought that is made worse by the effects of climate change, and Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a suite of bold mandates. By 2030, the energy efficiency of buildings must be doubled; half the state's electricity is to come from renewable energy, and California's transportation must run on half the oil that it uses today.

Of these, the first two are pretty straightforward. Energy efficiency in buildings is such a good investment that it should be a no-brainer, since many measures pay for themselves in a few years. The renewable energy sector is already providing 20 percent of California's electricity, and solar energy in particular is now growing in leaps and bounds, so it's quite possible for the renewables portion to reach 50 percent in 15 years.

Everybody can see that those two goals are within reach. But the third goal, to reduce transportation use of petroleum by half, is becoming a contentious issue. In large part it's the reality that, in California like everywhere else in the nation, almost everybody depends on their car to get them places. Places they really need to go, like work. There are pockets with great public transport, but by and large the car is it.

The oil industry, whose profits come in large part from our wallets, which we open every time we stop at the gas station, has entered the "discussion", casting the proposal as a disaster and painting a near future in which gasoline is rationed, leading to long lines like during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and even the banning of minivans.

Of course they would. It's their profits at stake here, after all, and in the long term we're talking about their very existence that's on the line, if this kind of legislation spreads beyond California the way sensible legislation tends to do.

It's naturally in an oil company's interest to scare you about an oil-free future, or even a future with a lot less oil. But the truth is that oil executives have a lot more to fear from this proposed mandate than you and I. It's their disaster we're talking about here.

Would half the Californians drive in Tesla Model S electric cars in 2030? Hmmm. It would be super cool, but unlikely: the new Model S, that P85D that broke Consumer Reports' scoring scale, has a price tag with six digits.

But there are other ways to sharply decrease our reliance on gasoline.


Go Electric.

Even right now there are a number of options for EVs and plug-ins, like the Chevy Volt, the Audi A3 e-Tron hatchback, the VW e-Golf, and the Nissan Leaf. In the coming few years the selection, like the vehicles' range, is only going to increase: car manufacturers can be expected to include one or more electric options in their lineup soon, and these will be priced so that you don't have to be super-rich to buy them.

Tesla itself is planning to offer a more affordable EV, with a 200 mile range and a price around $35,000. This is coming in 2017.


ReThink Your Ride.

This would be a good time to consider whether the car you own is really suited to your needs. If you have one or two children, and aren't planning more, do you really need that minivan?

Maybe your answer is yes. Mine was: for a while, my parents lived around the corner from us, and our minivan carried the six of us often, and very comfortably.

But my parents moved away, and I found that we did very well in a VW Golf, which is considered the "plain vanilla" family car in the Netherlands. It carries all four of us, plus our two cellos. With all doors closed. (Disclosure: one of the cellos is a 3/4 cello. But you get the idea).

If you need the back row to accommodate three child seats, it may make sense to buy the more expensive narrow car seats rather than a wider car.

Generally, smaller cars have much better fuel efficiency than larger cars, as well as smaller price tags, so you could win out both ways here.


Same Ride, Fuel Efficient Engine.

When that Golf was ten years old, we got a new car: it was another Golf. I guess we're a plain vanilla kind of family! But by that time, turbodiesel engines had come into their own and our new Golf does 38 mpg in our daily routine. That's twice as frugal as the old Golf, with the same space inside. What a deal! In the ordinary course of things (no road trips) I go to the gas station once a month.

There are actually quite a few cars out there that seat more than five people and do better than 30mpg. And eventually they will come to the United States: it's only a matter of time before the federal fuel efficiency rules will require them.


You've Got Until 2030.

Here's what really works in our favour: there's no need to rush out right now and buy a more fuel efficient car: Just be aware of these choices next time you go car shopping, which will happen at least once in the fifteen years between now and 2030. Besides, with the fuel efficiency mandate pushing towards more frugal cars as time goes on, the longer you wait, the more choices you'll have for fuel-frugal cars.

This way you have time to save up for a sweet ride. While the up-front costs may be higher, like for a diesel car or an EV, the cost of running the car is significantly less than for a conventional car running on gasoline.


Move Outside the Box

I'm talking about the box with four wheels. A bike is way less expensive than a car, and walking is absolutely free! If you manage to weave in either or both for your transportation needs, that's more savings both in emissions and financially.

If we all took these steps, many of which are more fun, or save you money in the long run, or both, we really will only need 50 percent the oil we need today for transportation, no rationing required. In fact, there will be a lot fewer people who will need to make that trip to the gas station.

And that would be a cool thing. Inside California and elsewhere.



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