12/18/2015 06:23 pm ET

Elon Musk Has Some Thoughts On VW's Punishment

"Cure the air, not the cars."

Why fix part of a problem when you could address the underlying issue instead?

That seems to be the thought process of Elon Musk and an esteemed cohort of 44 other business, environmental and thought leaders, who aren’t sure the punishment for Volkswagen’s clean diesel emissions scandal makes a whole lot of sense. 
In an open letter, the group urged California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols to have VW "cure the air, not the cars."

Instead of requiring the German automaker to attempt to recall and fix all of the 85,000 diesel vehicles it sold with software designed to cheat emissions tests -- a solution they label "costly," "impractical" and generally inefficient -- Musk and company propose California allocate its share of the settlement to accelerate the rollout of zero-emissions vehicles.

In particular, that would include investing in research, development and manufacturing facilities for new battery technologies, thereby adding economic returns to the obvious environmental ones.

The letter rolls out a five-step plan, clearly stating each milestone must be "legally enforceable":

1./ Release VW from its obligation to fix diesel cars already on the road in California, which represent an insignificant portion of total vehicles emissions in the State, and which cars do not, individually, present any emissions-related risk to their owners or occupants

2./ Instead, direct VW to accelerate greatly its rollout of zero emission vehicles, which by their very nature, have zero emissions and thus present zero opportunities for cheating, and also do not require any enforcement dollars to verify

3./ Require that this acceleration of the rollout of zero emissions vehicles by VW result in a 10 for 1 or greater reduction in pollutant emissions as compared to the pollution associated with the diesel fleet cheating, and achieve this over the next 5 years

4./ Require that VW invest in new manufacturing plants and/or research and development, in the amounts that they otherwise would have been fined, and do so in California to the extent that California would have been allocated its share of the fines

5./ Allow VW some flexibility in the execution and timing of this plan by allowing it to be implemented via zero emission vehicle credits.

There's a precedent for this type of redirection, the letter's authors write. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency opted to increase efficiency standards for diesel trucks instead of forcing a costly, wasteful recall.

The crime might just inspire a bit of déjà vu. Diesel engine manufacturers got caught installing emissions control devices that turned off after 50 miles of driving. 

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