Volkswagen’s Diesel Deceptions Will Lead To Thousands Of Early Deaths

By faking compliance with environmental standards, the German manufacturer has put people’s health in very real danger.

Volkswagen’s Diesel Deceptions Will Lead To Thousands Of Early Deaths

When Volkswagen deceived regulators about the pollution levels of its diesel cars, it did more than annoy drivers who thought they were buying something cleaner. It also put many lives at risk, according to new research.


Between 2008 and 2015, VW installed “defeat devices” in 11 million cars. “The devices were designed to detect and adapt to laboratory tests, making the cars appear to comply with environmental standards when, in fact, they emitted pollutants called nitric oxides, or NOx, at levels that were on average four times the applicable European test-stand limit,” MIT News Office wrote in a release about the report.

Of those 11 million cars, 2.6 million were sold in Germany under the Volkswagen Group, which includes VW, Audi, Skoda, and Seat brands. The excess NOx of these cars alone–about 48,000 tons a year–will cause 1,200 people to die prematurely, the study shows. In some cases, the reduction in normal lifespan could be as much as a decade.

Even though these cars were sold in Germany, people living there won’t necessarily see the worst impacts. Because pollution knows no national boundaries, more than half of the premature fatalities could happen among Germany’s neighbors, including Poland, France, and the Czech Republic, the researchers found. Even the U.K., surrounded by sea, is affected, with 30 Brits dying early, according to the study.

The research comes from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and uses the same computer model as a previous study, in which researchers from the two institutions looked at the impact of VW’s deception in the U.S. VW sold 482,000 dodgy cars in the U.S. during the 2008-2015 period, leading to a projected 59 early deaths. The researchers’ calculations factor in population density, how far cars are driven on average, and pre-existing atmospheric conditions. The per-car effects are worse in Germany than in the U.S., because Germans tend to live closer together, and drive their cars more intensively.

In all likelihood, VW is not alone is under-reporting its emissions, MIT co-author Steven Barrett said in a press statement. “It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions,” he says. “We don’t know if other manufacturers have these defeat devices, but there is already evidence that many other vehicles in practice emit more than the applicable test-stand limit value.” One study in Nature found that modern diesel engines emit up to four times more NOx in real road conditions than what lab tests record.

Barrett seems to be onto something: It recently emerged that the U.S. Justice Department and the European Union are investigating Fiat Chrysler for possibly using defeat devices. The fresh allegations, The Wall Street Journal writes, “point to the possibility of widespread emissions cheating and a Europe-wide problem in enforcing anti-pollution rules.”
It’s also bad news for the manufacturers: VW, the world’s biggest automaker, has already paid $20 billion in fines and civil settlements relating to the scandal.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.