How could Volkswagen diesel rigging retribution money improve air quality in California?

As part of the Volkswagen agreement with CARB (California Air Resources Board) and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), there will be a fund created for environmental remediation efforts related to the vehicles. The company will also be required to commit funding to promote “green automotive technology.” Currently, the organizations involved have not finalized details of remediation and promotion. So what would be the best ways to promote green automotive technology and remediate the NOx that has been polluting the air from Volkswagen diesel cars since 2009?

The funds could be used for programs to improve air quality in the areas affected by the pollution. Some ways to help improve the bad air quality caused by the NOx(Nitrogen Oxides) emitting diesel Volkswagens and Audis are improved testing to discover gross polluting cars, clean car programs that replace polluting clunkers with cleaner greener cars and supporting clean car use in low-income communities.

“Part of the problem with the test rigging of the Volkswagen vehicles is the way vehicles are initially certified by the EPA and compliance-checked in California,” said Niranjan Vescio, remote sensing product manager at Opus Inspection. The change in NOx emissions from Volkswagen rigged vehicles was detected using Opus’ testing equipment as early as 2010 and 2011 (see illustration).


Since the diesel rigging scandal broke, it is has become known that scheduled and predictable tests in smog test stations and laboratories can be defeated.

For 2000 and newer vehicles in California, the majority of vehicles do not receive an emission inspection (where a sensor is placed in the tailpipe), they receive an OBD(On Board Diagnostics) port  inspection which does not test emissions. When a registered California car owner goes to a smog testing location with a 2000 model year or newer vehicle, the car only receives a software test of the computer systems that monitors the sensors that control pollution.

For a California smog check, there all kinds of ways of defeating the OBD check, which are readily available on the Internet says Vescio. Car owners have found ways to change the settings to program the car’s computer to pass smog tests when the cars may be polluting above acceptable levels.

“It is now widely recognized that we should be doing more checks of emission of vehicles on the road where they actually pollute,” says Vescio, “Apart from PEMs (portable emissions measurement system), we should be using remote sensing emissions tests that are random and undetectable.”

Drive-by or remote sensing involves putting a “remote sensor” on the side of the the road and measures emissions of vehicles as they drive by. The equipment records the license plate number of the vehicle which can be used by state motor vehicle departments to identify individual cars or models that are polluting above allowable levels. The data collected can also be used to compile road profiles of compliance vs non-compliance vehicles and models.

“On-road surveillance can correct for the failures of past emissions testing strategies,” said Vescio “While you survey, you can collect data to notify the worst polluters that they are eligible for programs like Replace Your Ride.”

Replace Your Ride was launched in July 2015, it gave South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) residents grants of $2,500 and $9,500 to purchase newer, cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles depending on their income level, the vehicle model purchased and where they lived. The program targeted late model cars being driven by low-income drivers that pollute at higher rates than newer model green vehicles. It also targeted disadvantaged communities. Low-income residents living in environmentally disadvantaged areas who purchased one of the cleanest vehicles available received the highest incentive amount.

The Replace Your Ride limited pilot testing program in 2015 retired hundreds high-polluting vehicles in the South Coast area and replaced them with lower-emitting cleaner vehicles. The program targeted replacing late 1990’s models that were on the road.

A typical gas-powered vehicle of today is 8X times cleaner than vehicles of the late 1990s (0.05 g/mil NOx versus 0.4 g/mile NOx), reported Vescio. NOx is a generic term for the mono-nitrogen oxides NO and NO2.

According to the EPA

Current scientific evidence links short-term NO2 exposures, ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours, with adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma.-studies show a connection between breathing elevated short-term NO2 concentrations, and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially asthma.

Near-roadway (within about 50 meters) concentrations of NO2 have been measured to be approximately 30 to 100% higher than concentrations away from roadways…..

Ozone is formed when NOx and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight. Children, the elderly, people with lung diseases such as asthma, and people who work or exercise outside are at risk for adverse effects from ozone. These include reduction in lung function and increased respiratory symptoms as well as respiratory-related emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and possibly premature deaths.”

NOXEp NOx is especially dangerous because the pollutants formed from NOx can be transported over long distances. NOx contributes to the formation of acid rain, turns into smog, can turn into nitric acid vapor, deteriorates water quality, forms toxic chemicals, reduces visibility and contributes to global warming. (see chart)

The best case scenario for Replace Your Ride was when the low-income driver replaced a 1990’s car with a used 2011-2013 Nissan LEAF by receiving a $9500 grant. The replacement of the gas-powered car with a zero emissions electric car not only stops NOx going to the air but also reduces CO2.  According to, on average a gallon of gas produces 20 pounds of CO2.

According to The Union of Concerned Scientists studies, electric cars produce 50 percent less global warming pollution than gasoline cars. By the end of their lives, gas-powered cars spew out almost twice as much global warming pollution than the equivalent electric car. A 2013 Nissan LEAF (24 kWh) charged in downtown Los Angeles produces about as much global warming pollution as a gasoline vehicle getting 100 miles per gallon.

The Replace Your Ride program was so well-received there are now hundreds low-income drivers with high polluting cars on the waiting list. Most low-income people can’t afford a cleaner car without subsidies. The average price of a new car is $33,000 making new cars difficult to afford for low-income drivers who tend to keep fixing their late model cars that pollute at a higher rate.

“We think it is important for the money from the Volkswagen fund be used to rectify the egregious actions by Volkswagen by prioritizing clear car program funding in low-income communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the extra pollution,” said Joel Espino, environmental equity legal counsel attorney for the Greenlining Institute, the organization that supported Calfornia’s Charge Ahead California Initiative.

California should ensure that VW’s penalties benefit those hurt most by its criminal pollution says, Espino. He suggests that the Volkswagen funding to promote green automotive technology be used for programs that increase access to clean car programs for low-income communities with electric car rebates, replacement programs like Replace Your Ride and financing assistance. Funding should also support the installation of EV charging stations in apartment buildings and in low-income neighborhoods to suport the electric vehicles.

“VW must put money into making electric vehicles affordable.That will help Californians of all income levels drive electric cars and trucks, said Espino who concluded, “When California’s air quality is improved, we will all breathe easier.”