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Surprising Science

You Are Judge, Jury, and Executioner in the Trial Against Volkswagen

What’s your verdict?

Elon Musk posted a graphic during the announcement of the Tesla Model X, showing how emissions from driving impact our life expectancy city by city (and Musk says these estimates are conservative).

The timing of the announcement couldn’t have been better. It was the good news we needed after the recent Volkswagen scandal. The company knowingly equipped 11 million of its diesel cars with software to cheat emissions tests, contributing to air pollution, which in turn has affected our quality of life and the environment. The damage has been done, but what kind of punishment should follow?

The case against Volkswagen is one of consumer betrayal, but also negligence, compromising the health of its people by dumping extra toxins into the air. In the United States alone, air pollution causes 200,000 deaths a year. Not to mention health complications, such as asthma.

The New York Times writes that it found a few experts who “have formulas for the number of lives lost from excess pollution in general.” In the United States, it states that Volkswagen’s cars contributed to “an estimated 106 deaths…”

Vox, on the other hand, has done the math as well, calculating that “the extra pollution from Volkswagen’s US cars can be expected to lead to an additional five to 27 premature deaths per year. If we extrapolated worldwide to all 11 million vehicles, that would come to somewhere between 74 and 404 premature deaths each year.”

The numbers vary, but lives have been lost due to Volkswagen’s deceptions. The question is how should justice be done when the method of harm done is so abstract? Especially when considering past cases of company negligence more directly responsible for death; the case of the ignition defect in General Motors vehicles that contributed directly to 124 deaths, for example, in which the company got away with a hefty fine.

But whatever the verdict in Volkswagen’s case, consumers have an opportunity to play a pivotal role in the history of this company, and in reshaping the consumer/producer relationship by extension.

In this Big Think video, Kevin Clark explains that consumer trust is something brands have to earn again and again. 

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: Richard Blanshard / Contributor/ Getty


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