VW Scandal: 59 Early Deaths Expected In US - InformationWeek
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10/31/2015
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VW Scandal: 59 Early Deaths Expected In US

Researchers at Harvard and MIT estimate the health and social costs of Volkswagen's emissions deceit, including potential loss of life and a financial burden of at $450 million in the US. The latter figure is projected to be much higher without a prompt recall.

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It will be years before the penalties imposed on Volkswagen for systematically cheating on automotive emissions tests are known. But academics from two leading universities in the US have calculated what the scandal will cost in human lives.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, "Impact of the Volkswagen Emissions Control Defeat Device on US Public Health," researchers from Harvard and MIT estimate that the 482,000 non-compliant diesel vehicles sold in the US by Volkswagen and its subsidiaries between 2008 and 2015 will lead to approximately 59 people dying 10 to 20 years prematurely.

As it happens, the Environmental Protection Agency has placed a value on human life. This is based not on the way people value loved ones, but rather on what people will pay to avoid environmental health risks. Under such a framework, a vote against a tax to ensure clean water, for example, could be taken as a vote to lower the value of life.

The agency says the "Value of a Statistical Life" (VSL) is $7.4 million in 2006 dollars. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, this value should be $8.73 billion in 2015 dollars. But the General Counsel of the Department of Transportation in July said the VSL should be $9.4 million this year.

For the purposes of the Volkswagen emissions study, researchers Steven Barrett, Raymond Speth, Irene Dedoussi, Akshay Ashok, and Robert Malina from MIT, and Sebastian Eastham and David Keith from Harvard propose $8.1 million per life as a mean. According to their calculations, the health and social costs imposed by the excess emissions from Volkswagen's non-compliant diesel engines will reach $450 million by the end of 2015.

If there is no recall of the affected vehicles, and no further sales after September 2015, the monetized mortality cost is predicted by the researchers to reach an additional $910 million in the years after 2015. In addition, if nothing is done to remove the affected vehicles from the road, the researchers expect 140 additional people to die prematurely.

The total cost that will occur without recall is, therefore, expected to be approximately $1.4 billion, or approximately $2,800 per vehicle. According to the researchers, if the affected vehicles are recalled at a constant rate from the start of 2016, and all devices replaced by the end of 2016, the total cost of future mortality impacts could be reduced by 93% to $61 million.

(Image: Paulina101 via Pixabay)

(Image: Paulina101 via Pixabay)

The researchers expect various additional health effects, including: an estimated 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, approximately 34 hospital admissions, some 120,000 days of restricted activity, around 210,000 days limited by respiratory issues, and approximately 3,000 days of increased bronchodilator usage.

[ Too little, too late? Volkswagen CEO: Using Deceptive Software Was Wrong. ]

As a point of comparison, the researchers note that the projected number of premature deaths due to emissions-related factors is about 56 from a similar sized group of vehicles over a similar period (2008-2015). These estimated premature deaths represent 20% of the 280 people in the US who could be expected to die in automotive accidents involving a similar size group of vehicles (482,000) driving 40.5 billion kilometers (25.2 billion miles).

The EPA could potentially seek a penalty against Volkswagen of as much as $37,500 per vehicle, which would come to about $18 billion for 482,000 non-compliant cars in the US. But judging by past settlements, a figure in the hundreds of millions would be more in keeping with precedent. Volkswagen will also face civil litigation and other costs in the US, as well as regulatory penalties and litigation abroad.

(Image: tstajduhar/iStockphoto)

(Image: tstajduhar/iStockphoto)

The researchers argue that as a matter of effective policy, the fines assessed should be significantly higher than the projected health and social cost of the emissions. If regulators agree, Volkswagen could be looking at a penalty of several billion dollars in the US alone.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
11/2/2015 | 8:05:07 PM
Re: A substantial larger number in Europe - Mandatory recalls
@Pablo Valerio, yes, plus in Eastern Europe... they love diesel cars, as they do have cold winters... but VW did screw up with they doing things... sad... sad... sad... 
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
11/2/2015 | 8:02:50 PM
Re: health effects
@mak63 interesting observation... I would have the same question... I have Astma and Diabetes and in Canada VW did the same sxxt... sad reality of corporate greed...
Pablo Valerio
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Pablo Valerio,
User Rank: Ninja
11/1/2015 | 10:09:11 AM
A substantial larger number in Europe - Mandatory recalls
Tom, 

Unfortunately Diesel is very popular in Europe, where over 55% of new car sold are diesel. That, plus the fact that our population density is 301/sq mi, almost four times the US, could result in thousands of early deaths.

All diesel cars, from all manufacturers, are currently going over the maximum NOx emissions. This is because the conformity factors are extremely lax.

Just three days ago, the EU agreed to a two-step delay to introduce the more strict conformity factors.  The reduction of the conformity factor will be delayed one year to September 2019, as the industry lobby had hoped, and will also be only half the original reduction. The second step will be phased in in January 2021, when the full reduction will take effect.

I recently wrote an opinion piece for Cities of the Future where I argue that the Volkswagen cheat is a good thing. It created a big debate about pollution, diesel, and the need to advance new, cleaner, technologies, such as electric vehicles. Volkswagen and Audi are already moving faster in that direction.

As for recalls, it is necessary that all governments make them mandatory. VW wanted to make them voluntary. But some of the car owners affected might want to keep their cars puffing more NOx in order not to lose torque and fuel efficiency. VW needs to compensate them for that, but they should be forced to "fix" their cars.
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2015 | 5:18:14 PM
health effects
3,000 days of increased bronchodilator usage

This is apply to whom? I have asthma. To me, it would imply more than a hundred extra inhalers. Not funny, even though i pay just $4 each.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2015 | 4:40:30 PM
Re: VW Scandal: 59 Early Deaths Expected In US
@tzubair, yeah, we're talking about putting a dollar value on human life here, so it's impossibly complex to begin with. One could say that the open-ended nature leaves VW open to that much more penalization than if they, say, caused a single big traffic accident. It certainly seems like the researchers did their legwork and then some in saying 'here's how this value tallies up, IF we assume this, this, and this, and here's how it measures up to existing precidents, so this is more likely'. No doubt this incident will be scrutinized as a case study for years to come. The fallout is justifiably catastrophic.


tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2015 | 4:24:47 PM
Re: VW Scandal: 59 Early Deaths Expected In US
"The only minor thing I could note is that they counted the full value of the VSL against VW when we're only talking about potentially diminished life expectancy or quality of life for those people... but this is a thorny subject to begin with, and we're not talking about tangible, specific people anyway."

@zerox203: I agree that a lot of it is all numbers and statistical probabilities and in reality not one person may have died from anything. However, I do believe that the company did something wrong and deserves to be fined. If the amount of the fine is being determined through this way, I think it's alright even if the numbers might be exaggerated or unreal.
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2015 | 4:09:15 PM
Rest of the world
 

"If regulators agree, Volkswagen could be looking at a penalty of several billion dollars in the US alone"

US has given out the verdict but I believe the fraud wasn't restricted to US only and the cars were exported to other countries as well. It'd be interesting to see how other countries react to it and what their stance is on VW. If they too believe in the fine, the outcome can be very critical for VW.

 
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2015 | 2:15:48 PM
Re: VW Scandal: 59 Early Deaths Expected In US
I'm trying to decide whether I consider this research an altruistic attempt to raise public awareness, or a sensationalist publicity-grabber built to capitalize on the big scandal. I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive. I love being skeptical of research numbers, but it looks like the math at play is pretty solid here. The only minor thing I could note is that they counted the full value of the VSL against VW when we're only talking about potentially diminished life expectancy or quality of life for those people... but this is a thorny subject to begin with, and we're not talking about tangible, specific people anyway.

I'm a little confused on the estimation from the 'similary sized group'. Is that 56 in your average group of cars compared to 59 caused by VW cars - IE, not actually that huge of a gap?
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