Volkswagen's Buyback Might Be Worse (Environmentally) Than the Crime

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson
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volkswagen s buyback might be worse environmentally than the crime

Update: I made a decimal flub. The math is corrected. Thanks to commenter ChemEng for pointing it out. We’ll post a new piece on Monday.

There’s no denying it: Volkswagen cheated. It confessed to the crime of emitting up to 40 times over the legal limit allowed for NOx. We learned yesterday (and the day before, to some degree), that Volkswagen will fix the vehicles that can be fixed, if owners so choose.

But what happens to all those diesel cars, which are perfectly good aside from emitting more NOx than they should, if owners decide to cut and run? And what happens to all those vehicles that can’t be fixed? Volkswagen has vowed to buy them back from customers — to which I ask, what then?

There are few options Volkswagen can employ to unload the massive windfall of cars coming its way, and none of them are particularly environmentally friendly.

First, let’s make some assumptions

At the risk of making an ass of you and me, we need to make some assumptions to get the ball rolling.

Some Volkswagen TDI owners are going to hang onto their cars even as VW dangles cash carrots in front of their faces. Those owners will get their cars fixed, grab a $5,000 check, and move on with their lives. However, another subset of Volkswagen owners is going to look at that aging 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI in the driveway and say, “Yeah, I can do without that.”

The diesel emissions scandal affects nearly 500,000 2.0-liter TDI vehicles. Let’s say close to half of affected vehicle owners decide to cut and run, putting the total number of buybacks at, eh, 225,000.

How will Volkswagen dispose of 225,000 cars? How will it handle a number of cars equal to 65 percent of its total sales for 2015?

Volkswagen needs to get all those vehicles somewhere first

Volkswagen TDI owners will likely do the following: read that VW is willing to buy back that 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI sitting in the driveway, drive down to the local dealer, sign some papers, and get a check for the value of the car plus an extra $5,000.

What happens to that car after the buyback? That’s what could be a nightmare for Volkswagen — and the environment.

Obviously, there aren’t 225,000 dealer lot jockeys working in the entirety of the United States. Hell, there aren’t even half that number of people working in dealerships who can drive two vehicles to their final destinations. Those vehicles will be sent on trucks, trains, or ships to meet their fates elsewhere (unless Volkswagen decides to buy a car crusher for each and every dealership in the United States).

It’s infinitely difficult to figure out how much fuel will be spent to move all that metal around. However, the U.S. Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book (2010) provides average energy efficiency numbers on the two most common methods of shipping large cargo over land:

Class 1 Railroads: 289 BTUs per short ton mile

Heavy Trucks: 3,357 BTUs per short ton mile

Locomotives and heavy trucks both use diesel, which has an energy density of 129,500 BTUs per gallon. A 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI has a curb weight of about 3,300 pounds. So how much fuel will be burned to, let’s say, move that Jetta 800 miles if the train and truck are fully laden?

By rail:

289 BTUs per short ton mile / 129,500 BTUs per gallon of diesel =

0.00223166023166 gallons of diesel per short ton mile

0.00223166023166 gallons of diesel per short ton mile / 2,000 pounds x 3,300 pounds =

0.003682239396 gallons of diesel per Jetta mile

0.003682239396 gallons of diesel per Jetta mile x 800 miles =

2.9457915168 gallons of diesel per Jetta for 800 miles

By truck:

3,367 BTUs per short ton mile / 129,500 BTUs per gallon of diesel =

0.026 gallons of diesel per short ton mile

0.026 gallons of diesel per short ton mile / 2,000 pounds x 3,300 pounds =

0.0429 gallons of diesel per Jetta mile

0.0429 gallons of diesel per Jetta mile x 800 miles =

34.32 gallons of diesel per Jetta for 800 miles

Those numbers in and of themselves aren’t particularly impressive. 3 gallons and 34 gallons to move a Jetta around? That’s no big deal. But this buyback won’t include just a single Jetta; in this exercise, there are 225,000 Volkswagens to move!

By rail:

2.9457915168 gallons of diesel per Jetta for 800 miles x 225,000 =

662,803 gallons of diesel fuel to move 225,000 Volkswagens 800 miles

By truck:

34.32 gallons of diesel per Jetta for 800 miles x 225,000 =

7,722.000 gallons of diesel fuel to move 225,000 Volkswagens 800 miles

That’s a lot of diesel fuel.

Burning fuel creates emissions, though, so what of the emissions coming from heavy trucks? It’s fairly easy to figure out truck emissions on a per mile basis thanks to averages provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (2008).

The GVWR of a car carrier truck is typically rated at 80,000 pounds. The EPA averages NOx emissions for Class VIIIb trucks (> 60,000 pounds, GVWR) at 10.990 grams per mile. If an average car carrier can hold nine vehicles at a time, that means 25,000 one-way trips of 800 miles.

25,000 trips x 800 miles = 20,000,000 miles

20,000,000 miles x 10.990 grams/mile = 219,800,000 grams of NOx

Converting that to Imperial units, those one-way trips will produce 484,576 pounds, or 242.288 short tons, of NOx.

Those trucks also have to drive back to home base unladen, so multiply those numbers by 1.5 to get somewhere close to the real-world environmental impact of transporting 225,000 cars. That means those trucks alone could emit 363.432 short tons of NOx.

Let’s put this into perspective, shall we?

The Guardian did some of its own math when the scandal broke, and it came up with a high-side estimate of 45,824.18 short tons of NOx per year produced by dirty 2.0-liter Volkswagen diesels in the United States. That means all TDI cars will need to be off the road for almost eight years before the environmental impact of these truck trips equals out. But we’re only taking half of those vehicles off the road, so the amount of time those vehicles need to be off the road doubles before it makes any kind of environmental sense — nearly 16 years.

Decimals, man: So, I made a flub and a commenter corrected it. (Thank you, ChemEng!) The above, struckout math doesn’t add up anymore. The new (corrected) math means that all affected 2.0-liter TDIs would have to be off the road for just 3 days to equal the number of truck trips. We’ll post a new piece on Monday.

And remember: Volkswagen still hasn’t disposed of the cars at this point.

All this math could be for naught. Volkswagen could throw its current distribution network in reverse, with the product of that move being significant savings in fuel and reduced emissions.

Crush ’em

The simplest solution might be the worst one: crush ’em all and let the Chinese recycling industry sort it out.

When the dirty diesels do finally arrive at the gates of twisted metal heaven, they’ll have to be processed. Before a car is crushed, it needs to be drained of fluids, and its recyclable parts (such as engines, wheels, tires, batteries, and other components) must be removed. The manpower needed to process 225,000 vehicles is immense, to be sure.

After processing, a crusher will be waiting for them that isn’t powered by the EPA’s good intentions. Instead, big diesel generators provide the power crushers need to stomp all those dirty cars into neat little cubes.

Overbuilt is one of the lead manufacturers of car crushers in the United States. According to sales manager Steve Besch, one of Overbuilt’s crushers can — with an experienced crew running at the top of their game — crush 40 processed cars per hour. That same car crusher will burn around 2.5 to 3 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, meaning it will burn 16,875 gallons of diesel to crush 225,000 cars. That fuel estimate does not include the many gallons of fuel needed to get crusher operators and support crews to and from the work site.

After a car is crushed, the raw materials need to be recycled. This is something that would happen at the end of a vehicle’s life anyway, as would all the car crushing. However, the fact that these cars are being taken off the road prior to their best-before dates causes undue strain on the environment, just like the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) program.

We’ve been using the 225,000 unit figure for the purpose of this exercise, and it corresponds nicely with the number of vehicles crushed by the CARS program. In 2009, the U.S. government’s CARS (or “cash for clunkers”) program crushed nearly 700,000 cars, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and accounted for a boost in economic growth of 0.3 to 0.4 percent.

Considering our assumed number of vehicles, 225,000 crushed Volkswagens could account for proportional economic growth of 0.1 to 0.13 percent, but without CARS’ effect of increasing fleet-wide fuel economy in the United States. If anything, the fuel economy average would likely go down, as these vehicles will be replaced with thirstier, albeit cleaner, alternatives.

Ship ’em elsewhere

Volkswagen could ship all these cars to some overseas locale where there’s no local word for “emissions.”

Should Volkswagen choose this option, there’s a very convenient shipping route from Baltimore to West Africa. EUKOR Car Carriers Inc. operates a ship on the route with a 5,000-6,000 vehicle capacity, and it runs once or twice per month. Trying to sort out the emissions of such a ship without knowing the specific powerplant used is akin to throwing darts in the dark. Therefore, let’s focus on the lowest common denominator here: the number of round trips.

To ship 225,000 cars from Baltimore to Africa on the route detailed by EUKOR would make 38 round trips. It would take about three years for Volkswagen to rid America of half of its dirty diesels.

Oh, and after all this shipping, Volkswagen has only moved the problem. We all breathe the same air eventually.

Fix and resell

Volkswagen stated in court Thursday that it plans to fix some vehicles at the request of owners. Even some of those buyback vehicles will likely be fixed and resold at the same dealer, or fixed and sent off to auction where they will be picked up by another dealer and resold.

However, Volkswagen has leased new Jettas at obscenely low prices, just like other automakers lately, all to keep the flow of cars unrestricted at Volkswagen’s about 650 dealerships in the United States. Those cheap leases are going to come back to bite automakers, as a record number of vehicles are expected to come off lease in 2016.

Should Volkswagen begin fixing and reselling cars this year, the used TDI market is going to bottom out, even as Volkswagen expends significant energy and resources to fix those cars.

Maybe it’s better to leave those dirty diesels on the road as-is

We assume at the beginning of this article that Volkswagen is buying back 225,000 cars. Some may consider this number high, low, or on the money. In reality, it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of the number of cars — whether it be one or all of them — Volkswagen, EPA, CARB, and many other parties need to look beyond the law and realize the spirit in which it was written. If the amount of pollution produced and energy expended outweighs the benefit of any fix or solution, U.S. regulators and Volkswagen have only one real option: do nothing.

Well, not absolutely nothing.

There are many solutions outside of the cars themselves that Volkswagen can employ to offset the extra environmental damage of these cars. Those options must be explored before a decision based purely on politics and populist views is made.

Should the EPA, CARB, and Volkswagen come to an agreement where moving thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of cars around the United States is part of the solution, all parties are cutting off their nose to spite face — and in this case, the face is ours.

[Image Source: BentParrot/YouTube]

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

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2 of 94 comments
  • Ezra Finkin - DTF Ezra Finkin - DTF on Apr 25, 2016

    This analysis concerning the shipping of cars assumes g/mi NOX emissions of a pre-MY 1988 truck at 10.9 g/mi. Using the analysis in the article, assuming the Class 8 tractor is powered by a diesel engine that meets the most recent emissions standard required of truck engines manufactured as of 2010 with 0.5 g/mile of NOx, we get ~1 ton of NOx to move all of the 225,000 cars. A bit more than one-in-four Class 8 tractors is model year 2010 or newer.

  • Jasper2 Jasper2 on Apr 26, 2016

    Can't wait to buy my next VW (yeah, right)

  • Mr Imperial Seeing the adjusted-for-inflation amount always makes me sick, I can't believe how much it has gone up in my 40-some-odd trips around the sun. Still fondly remember seeing these and Ford Explorers everywhere.
  • Kyl65759578 👋
  • ToolGuy I appreciate the thoughtful comments from the little people here, and I would like to remind everyone that Ford Motor Company offers a full range of vehicles which are ideal for any driving environment including New York City. The size and weight our of product portfolio has been fully and completely optimized to be friendly to the planet and friendly to pedestrians while consuming the bare minimum of resources from our precious planet (I am of course a lifelong environmentalist). Plus, our performance models will help you move forward and upward by conquering obstacles and limits such as congestion and your fellow humans more quickly at a higher rate of speed. I invite you to learn more at our website.Signed, William Clay Ford Jr.
  • George Hughes What ever happened to the American can-do attitude. I know what, it was coopted by the fossil fuel industry in their effort to protect their racket.
  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriors