We won’t ever know how many people have died as a result of Volkswagen cheating on the emission controls of its diesel engines. But the pollutants emitted by diesel engines do kill just as surely as other poisons and their victims are predominantly people who are not themselves drivers: pedestrians, or those whose families have to live near the kind of heavy traffic that anyone with money tries to avoid. On a global scale, the filthiest engines are found in the poorest countries, so here, too, it is the non-drivers who pay the price for drivers’ selfishness. That particular injustice will necessarily continue whether or not the authorities can decide on and then enforce honest standards from carmakers in the future, since diesel engines have a life of about 15 years (longer if they are more polluting, less if they run hotter to minimise the damage that they do to the rest of us). Even if every diesel engine made in Europe is honest and unpolluting from this moment on, there is still a huge backlog of VW engines that will go on spewing poison for another 10 years or more.

This is a very serious crisis, and the spectacle of the boss on whose watch it erupted stepping lightly down on to the cushion of a gigantic pension is frankly repellent. It is an important part of the explanation for the scandal that the executives involved may have believed that everyone else in the industry was at it. They may well have been right. It is also part of the explanation that the industry regulators connived and still connive at a great deal of small scale cheating for such things as fuel economy tests. But none of these explanations amount to an extenuation. In fact they make matters worse, and argue the case for severity, since it will take exceptional disincentives to change behaviour so widely accepted within the industry, as one lesson of the banking crisis suggests. The VW group has lost almost a third of its value on the stock market in the last week. It is only fair that some similar catastrophe should strike at the men personally responsible for this.

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Video: Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn resigns, taking responsibility for the German carmaker’s rigging of US emissions tests

Yet it would be simplistic to blame the wickedness of the industry and to suppose that the consumers involved were entirely innocent idealists, cruelly misled by unscrupulous marketeers. Drivers were as happy to go along with the deceptions as most testing bodies proved to be. The performance gains achieved by running the engines in full pollution mode were not at all large, yet apparently necessary to compensate drivers for the burden of supposedly doing their bit to save the earth. Even now, the motor trade – those who sell the cars as opposed to those who build them – seems to anticipate no losses as a result of the scandal. Recalls are if anything good for business, since they bring customers back to the showrooms.

What can we learn? One obvious lesson arises from the way the fraud was performed. Modern cars are complex computer networks mounted on wheels, in which almost every control that feels mechanical is in fact modulated by software. In particular, the trade-off between fuel economy and performance is entirely determined by computers running in real time and VW’s emissions fraud was perpetrated by simply tweaking this code.

In a world where almost all our devices are programmable this problem is not confined to cars. It demands much more rigorous and flexible testing regimes than simple mechanical devices ever could, since any intelligent device is smart enough to be taught by its programmers to cheat. There’s no simple solution here. If all the code that ran on cars were freely available, there would be a huge demand for hackers to tweak it to make them faster and dirtier. This is the final lesson. There are real costs to trying to save the planet, and almost everyone would rather that other people paid them. Only firm and impartial regulation can deliver us from a literally fatal selfishness.

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