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How Many People Did Volkswagen Kill?

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A lot of numbers are being thrown around in the growing scandal engulfing German automaker Volkswagen over cheating diesel emissions regulations.  In addition to the ballooning financial burden of the scandal, some experts have now worked up the human cost of VW’s deceit.

Dollar cost of VW scandal growing

What is known at this point is that VW installed software “defeat devices” affecting 11 million of its clean diesel vehicles worldwide, including about 500,000 in the United States.  Installed with the defeat devices, VW’s clean diesel cars could detect when they were undergoing emissions testing by regulators, in which case they would activate all pollution control measures.  The cars otherwise drove without these measures active, emitting nitrogen oxides (NOx) up to 40 times over the U.S. legal limit.

What is not known at this point is how much the discovery of these defeat devices and the ensuing controversy will ultimately cost Volkswagen.  VW’s new CEO, Matthias Müller, has already said the $7.3 billion the company set aside to cover the cost of bringing its vehicles installed with illegal software into legal compliance will be insufficient.  Between the hard costs of fixing the problem cars and paying fines and the costs of litigation and damage to the VW brand, the scandal’s total cost to the company could amount to $25 billion.

Responding to this, credit agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) became the first ratings agency to downgrade the company’s short- and long-term credit rating from A to A-.

These are big numbers and big developments. They will have a big impact on the future of Volkswagen and potentially the automaking industry as a whole.  However, something that gets lost in these numbers is the human cost of VW’s fraud.  Compared to another recent massive scandal involving a major automaker – GM’s recall of 30 million vehicles because of faulty ignition switches, the VW scandal seems to be missing something: actual deaths.

Up to 94 deaths caused by VW deception, according to Associated Press

Statistical and computer analysis by the Associated Press (AP), reported in the New York Times on October 3, set out to calculate just how many deaths can be attributed to NOx emissions from Volkswagen’s fraudulent clean diesel cars.  Their findings dispel the notion that VW’s skirting of environmental regulations was a victimless crime.

What is NOx?

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) – the chemicals VW diesels emitted up to 40 times above legal limits – result from burning fossil fuels at high temperatures.  Burning diesel fuel is a well-established source of NOx emissions.  NOx is a major contributor to air pollution; it reacts in sunlight to form ozone, and in warm, sunny conditions, forms ground-level ozone, more commonly called “smog.”  How much smog can form depends on a number of variables, like the amount of sunlight, temperature, local wind patterns, and geography.  The presence of smog therefore varies by location; as many people can observe from experience, there is more smog in valleys than on mountaintops.

NOx and smog are linked to several respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and also premature deaths. These chemicals irritate the lungs, inflame airways, and can lower resistance to respiratory illnesses like the flu. They are especially harmful to the elderly as well as people with persistent medical conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

AP analysis results

According to the analysis by the Associated Press, pollution from Volkswagen’s clean diesel cars over seven years, beginning in 2008 (when cars with defeat devices came to market), caused between 16 and 94 premature deaths in the United States – increasing recently as more VW diesels came onto the road.  In recent years, the AP estimates 5 to 20 deaths caused annually by the VW deception. The range in deaths reflects the upper and lower limits of extra NOx emissions produced by VW’s defeat devices, which were 10 to 40 times over the amount permitted by regulators.

The AP’s calculations were vetted by independent experts in emissions, risk, and public health, who were not “environmental advocate or representatives of auto companies.”  Working independently, one scientist even achieved the same results as the AP with his own statistical analysis.

The AP also ran the emissions totals for VW clean diesels it estimated through an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) computer model. The EPA calculates that it takes roughly 1,300 tons of NOx to cause one human death.  Running its emission totals through the EPA model, the AP found a slightly lower death toll between 12 and 69.

Similar results from other deaths estimates

The Upshot (a data-driven news blog by the New York Times) conducted statistical analysis using a model developed by three researchers looking at the effect of NOx regulations on mortality rates and healthcare spending. The Upshot’s analysis yielded a total of 106 deaths caused by VW’s deception, assuming NOx emissions were at the high end.  Another model by an associate professor at M.I.T. calculated 40 deaths. ran the numbers and turned up 5 to 27 premature death per year caused by NOx pollution from VW cars with the hidden software.  This number is in line with the AP’s annual estimate, and indeed, the numbers presented here are all fairly consistent, which is notable given “the magnifying glass is really close,” as Professor Greenstone of the University of Chicago told The Upshot.

Worldwide deaths

Given that Volkswagen sold only 482,000 of its 11 million problem cars in the United States, the global death toll from VW’s defeat devices is much larger than the numbers supplied above – especially in Europe, where VW sold about 10 million of its fraudulent cars. Working up from its U.S.-only results, estimated between 74 and 404 premature deaths caused by the VW deception each year, worldwide.

Limitations of calculating VW death tolls

There are inherent limitations in trying to precisely and accurately calculate the deaths caused by Volkswagen’s defeat devices and resulting NOx emissions.  The journalists and researchers doing these analyses have to make judgment calls in deciding the variables they should plug into their calculations.

Total NOx emissions from the affected VW cars are derived from Kelly Blue Book numbers on new vehicles registered each year multiplied by the number of miles driven by each car.  In the analyses considered in this writing, the individual mileage of each car is based off government averages.  (The average U.S. car drives 11,244 miles per year).  This number is then multiplied by the NOx emissions levels, as revealed in the current scandal, to calculate total NOx emissions from the problem VW diesels.

The amount of NOx emissions changes with how a vehicle is being driven; i.e., on the highway or in stop-and-go traffic.  Likewise, the actual harm to human health caused by these emissions is dependent on many variables that are virtually impossible to completely account for in this sort of analysis.  In addition to age and medical history, whether a person lives on a quiet suburban street versus a busy thoroughfare factors significantly into whether he or she develops a respiratory condition from breathing NOx.  In reading these analyses, one should therefore be more skeptical of specific numbers, like the 106 deaths The Upshot tallied, compared to ranges of numbers, like that provided by the AP.

Despite the limitations, however, these analyses of the total number of premature deaths attributable to Volkswagen’s actions are valuable.  Regulators like the EPA make these types of calculations all the time in order to craft large policy decisions; for example, setting the limit on NOx emissions that VW cheated.


The main point to come away with here is that Volkswagen did not commit a victimless crime.  Somewhere in the United States, someone suffered an early death from inhaling NOx pollution spewed out of the exhaust pipe of a Volkswagen clean diesel car. As the data analysis presented here shows, in all likelihood, this scenario played out numerous times. The automaker is responsible for these deaths just as General Motors is responsible for the 124 confirmed deaths in car accidents caused by its defective ignition switches. The only key difference between these two cases is salience: because the victims of the latter were physically pulled from vehicles with the defective ignitions, it feels like the manufacturer is more responsible in this case.

The human consequences of the decision to install the software defeat devices into Volkswagen’s cars probably weren’t salient to whoever in the company ultimately made this decision. Perhaps for this person (or more likely, group of people), the cause and effect relationship of this decision – how using defeat devices to cheat air quality laws would impact individual human health – wasn’t clear; or, they believed the cause could never definitively be linked to its effect as far as any legal authority could possibly be convinced.

Volkswagen will soon face consequences for its dishonest efforts to undermine government regulations – regulations intended to create a fair playing field for all businesses while also protecting the air we breathe.  Volkswagen will not be brought to account for the lives directly impacted by illness or death caused by its clean diesel emissions; nonetheless, the company is still responsible.


Cory Watson Attorneys may be able to help you receive financial compensation if you purchased a Volkswagen clean diesel installed with fraudulent software.  You can view a full list of the affected models as well as fill out a free consultation form by clicking the button below.  Otherwise, pick up the phone and give us at 1-877-562-0000.

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