The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples:

In Europe, the cars tested are pre-production models that are specially prepared for the purpose. The industry calls them ‘golden vehicles’.

For Jane Thomas, from Emissions Analytics, one of the leading independent emissions analysts, the NEDC tests are “very sedate and short. There is no resemblance to real-world driving”. The gentle acceleration, cruising speed, and braking used in the tests would be unrecognisable to most drivers, she says. There is no simulation of prolonged motorway driving, and carmakers use the most optimal settings to improve performance, such as the bare minimum of fuel and switching off air conditioning. She says carmakers might remove windscreen wipers, wing mirrors, and spare wheels, and even tape up doors to reduce drag.”I don’t think manufacturers (in the EU) break the rules, but they do bend them,” she says. “Everyone is gaming the tests in Europe.”

As Michael Kinsley famously said, “the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.” But the question is, why? Presumably, the regulation and testing regime was instituted because experts and politicians believed it was important to reduce the health impacts of diesel emissions, and they were set at a level that was considered appropriate to that goal. But the nature of the test, and the extent of cheating that has been connived at, have stalled progress to those goals, probably killing hundreds of people, and harming many more. Now that the subterfuge has become untenable, there are plans to impose more stringent tests, and Dundes’s suggestion will be followed: the limits on NOx emissions will be raised, because manufacturers argued that actually meeting the limits that have actually been in force for years would be too expensive.

What I’m wondering is, why? If it was believed that the limits did not need to be set so low for health reasons — or that costs and benefits were best balanced at a higher emissions limit — why set the limit low with a weak testing regime? That seems to just invite spurious creativity, and a culture of lawlessness that led to the VW scandal. Why not just set the limits higher to begin with? One might cynically contend that the point was not to act to improve public health, but to create the appearance of action. But higher limits would still have created the appearance of action. The public doesn’t know what the levels should be; independent environmental groups would have complained, but they’ve been complaining about the feeble tests anyway.


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