VW cheated on emissions tests of its “clean diesels”

Not as “clean” as claimed.

The relatively unknown non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) was actually trying to prove that diesel vehicles could be clean, but didn’t realise that it would uncover what is revealing itself to be the next great scandal in the automotive industry. When the ICCT tested the diesel variants of Volkswagen’s Passat and Jetta, and the BMW X5 in Europe, they found that the results from the road and lab tests didn’t make sense.

It then decided to replicate the tests in the US, where they borrowed equipment from West Viginia University – a portable emissions testing equipment which had a probe that could be inserted into the exhaust pipe to measure on-the-road driving emissions. At the same time, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) tested the vehicles in the lab. The vehicles passed the lab tests, but the real-world numbers were shocking. The BMW X5 passed the road test, but the VW Jetta exceeded the nitrogen oxide (NO) emissions standard by 15–35 times while the VW Passat spewed out 5–20 times the standard.

Bloomberg reported that CARB and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) then started investigations into the issue; this was back in May 2014. VW claimed that it had identified the problem and began recalling nearly half a million vehicles in the US to install a software patch. But further tests by CARB found that the vehicles’ emissions numbers were still in violation of the standard. The findings were shared with VW and EPA in July.

Finally, as regulators refused to grant approval for sale of VW’s 2016 models, the cat scratched its way out of the bag. According to the EPA, VW admitted that it had installed a defeat device, a clever software algorithm that detected when the vehicle was being put through its periodic emissions testing, and the car’s full emissions control system would be activated. But during normal driving conditions, the controls were switched off, resulting in the car releasing much more NO than is permitted by law.

Last Friday, the Obama administration directed the German automaker to recall nearly 500,000 cars, which comprises 4-cylinder VW and Audi vehicles – namely, all 2009-2015 models of the VW Jetta, VW Beetle, VW Golf, and Audi A3, and the 2014-2015 models of the VW Passat.

It is not expected that VW will be let off easily – not by the federal government, regulators or consumers – as recent safety violations by automakers have been aggressively pursued and reported in the media. However, final settlement numbers have often fallen short of expectations: GM paid a US$900 million penalty for failing to disclose faulty ignition switch; Toyota paid US$1.2 billion for concealing its cars “unintended acceleration” issue; Hyundai and Kia will be paying a combined US$300 million for overstating fuel economy ratings of their cars. Under the Clear Air Act, VW could be fined as much as US$37,500 for each recalled car, for a total penalty that could reach US$18 billion.

The company’s diesel models make up more than a quarter of sales in the US, and the brand has been struggling in the North American market. This recent scandal will undoubtedly loosen whatever foothold it has been able to make. There are no news yet from China and Europe on what actions they will be taking after this expose, but with the slowdown in the Chinese market and the strict European laws, this recent development bodes nothing good for VW in those markets.

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