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MIT Study Estimates That VW's Dieselgate Scandal Will Send 1,200 Europeans To An Early Grave

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In 2015, Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Hasselt University (in Belgium) estimated that VW’s 482,000 cheating diesels would lead to an estimated 59 premature deaths in the U.S. Now some of those same researchers have taken a look at the 2.6 million TDIs sold in Germany, and the premature death figures are staggering.

The study, which you can read here, estimates that VW’s polluting diesels sold in Germany between 2008 and 2015 will result in 1,200 premature deaths throughout Europe. That figure is in relation to if those TDIs had met Euro 5 emissions regulations from the outset. Of those 1,200 early deaths, 500 are expected to occur in Germany, 60 in Poland, 84 in France, 72 in the Czech Republic and the rest in other nearby European nations.


Perhaps even more worrying is that the study claims that a total of 13,000 life-years have been lost because of the pollution emitted by cheating TDIs between 2008 and 2015, with an average lifespan decrease of 11 years per premature fatality.

It’s worth noting that the study’s 95 percent confidence intervals for premature deaths and total life-years lost are 130 to 2,800 and 1,400 to 32,000, respectively. The above estimates represent medians, and there’s quite a bit of uncertainty involved. Still, let’s have a quick look at the methodology.


The study begins by using data from Germany’s KBA (motor vehicle authority) and ADAC automobile club to determine how many affected models are in Germany, and when they entered service.

From there, the researchers went about calculating how much excess NOx resulted from the 2.6 million 1.2-liter, 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter VWs, Audis, Seats and Skodas sold in Germany between 2008 and 2015. To determine this, the team looking at on-road emissions test data from both KBA and West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines & Emissions, to come up with “emissions factors” describing how many grams of NOx the cars polluted per kilometer of travel, normalized by fuel economy.

Then, using the vehicle sales and registration data, researchers multiplied these emissions factors by each car’s fuel economy to determine mass of NOx emitted per kilometer traveled for all models. That value was then multiplied by the total vehicle-kilometers traveled by all cars in the study between 2008 and 2015 (354 billion kilometers), resulting in an estimated excess pollution of 240 kilotons (with a 95 percent confidence interval between 28 and 440 kilotons) of NOx when compared to if the cars had emitted the 0.18 grams/kilometer allowed by Euro 5 emissions regulations.


From there, the model distributes the 240 kilotons of NOx throughout Germany, using a method described below:

A distribution of on-road emissions factors is derived from existing measurements and combined with sales data and a vehicle fleet model to estimate total excess NOx emissions. These emissions are distributed on a 25 by 28 km grid covering Europe, using the German Environmental Protection Agency’s (UBA) estimate of the spatial distribution of NOx emissions from passenger cars in Germany.


Finally, the study used a 3-D atmospheric composition model called GEOS-Chem to come up with the increase in particulate matter and ozone exposure to citizens of the EU, Switzerland and Norway. Those exposure figures were then translated into health impacts via “concentration-response functions,” ultimately resulting in number of premature deaths and life-years lost.

The study also delves into health costs associated with those life-years lost, saying VW’s excess pollution has already caused 1.9 billion Euro of damage.


On top of that, the paper discusses how recalls would affect these numbers moving forward, saying that if all vehicles were recalled and brought into emissions compliance at a fixed rate between 2015 and the end of 2017, a total of 2,600 premature deaths could be avoided, 29,000 life-years could be spared, and 4.1 billion Euro could be saved versus if no action were taken.

It’s also worth mentioning that the reason why the premature death toll is so much higher than the 59 predicted for the U.S. involves more than simply sales volumes, the study says. Yes, Germany sold more than two million more affected vehicles, but emissions requirements are different, and the research paper found that Germans also drive 19 percent more per year. This last point could be somewhat confused, since this new study used average miles traveled for diesel vehicles in Germany, whereas the U.S.-based study chose average miles driven by all cars in the U.S. (and diesels are generally thought to be driven longer distances thanks to their superior fuel economy).


In addition, the study says, population density and “more NOx-sensitive background conditions” make Europe more prone to a higher premature death count than the U.S.

It’s fascinating that this is a study done by well-known researchers who have been doing work on automotive pollution since well before Dieselgate broke.