Firstly, it highlights irregularities with the emissions testing procedure itself. This has been under some scrutiny recently for not representing real world driving conditions. This has been used in part to explain the discrepancy between tighter vehicle emissions and the lack of improvement in local air quality in our towns and cities. The revelation that VW has also been fixing the emission tests so that their vehicles produce lower emissions during the testing procedure perhaps overrides any concerns about whether the test itself represents real world driving conditions. The combination of the two is the unfortunate worst case scenario where we currently find ourselves.
Secondly, it opens a whole can of worms for those that have purchased vehicles for their lower emissions. Take the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in London, for example. This was established to encourage the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles driving in London to become cleaner. Granted, the LEZ does not apply to smaller vehicles but imagine if the emissions trickery undertaken by VW is endemic amongst all vehicle manufacturers, including those making heavy diesel vehicles. This could mean that individuals or companies have purchased a less polluting heavy diesel vehicle in order to avoid paying charges within the LEZ. Or rather they have purchased what they believed to be a less polluting vehicle. Chances are they have gone to the extra expense of purchasing this vehicle only for it to have no benefit in terms of the emissions it generates.
There is also the London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to consider. The ULEZ will be introduced in 2020. All cars, motorcycles, vans, minibuses and heavy goods vehicles entering the ULEZ will need to meet exhaust emission standards or pay an additional daily charge to travel within the zone. These emission standards will be aligned with the latest Euro emission standards e.g. Euro 6 for cars. It is these Euro emission standards, for nitrogen oxide (NOx) in particular that VW has admitted to rigging.
So perhaps the VW emissions scandal has arrived just in time for the ULEZ? We may find that in 5 years time someone wishing to buy a Euro 6 compliant car will be confident that the emissions from that car are as advertised. As a result, may we also see that air quality in our towns and cities finally improving with real world vehicle emissions mirroring their laboratory counterparts? Or are the low emissions we seek only achievable in laboratories (under false driving conditions, tampering of the car and tweaking of the data) meaning real world improvements in air quality will need to be achieved in some other way?
These are interesting and revelatory times for the air quality world.