VW caught cheating emissions tests by US regulators after ICCT tip-off

October 16, 2015

Volkswagen has been left with its reputation in tatters, as well as facing huge fines and a recall of 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide, after it was caught cheating emissions tests by US regulators. The company’s CEO resigned days after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the admission of software in its vehicles designed to cheat the tests.

The discovery of the software, which could identify when the car was being tested and cut harmful exhaust so it looked as if the cars met requirements, originated from a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation and West Virginia University – work on which started in 2013. The study tested three cars and found that two – a Volkswagen Jetta and Passat – exceeded NOx limits by 15 to 40 times in highway driving.

The results were reported to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the EPA in 2014, and while Volkswagen disputed the findings it implemented a voluntary recall that did not fix the issue. Tests by the CARB and EPA found the cars had software that tracked the position of the steering wheel, speed, the length of time the engine is running, and barometric pressure. Where these measurements matched the ones commonly found in vehicle testing, the software reduced harmful emissions to pass the test. European authorities were provided with the same information but did not investigate.

On 3 September 2015, when confronted with the mounting evidence, Volkswagen admitted to cheating the tests. Within days of the scam being made public on 18 September, with details of fines that could total $18 billion (€15.8 billion), Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned. When the company announced the scam could affect 11 million cars worldwide, shares plunged to 40% below their value before the crisis hit.

Europe’s diesel addiction and a rotten testing system

Diesel cars have a niche market in the US, and in most of the rest of the world, representing just one in seven cars sold worldwide. However, in Europe more than half of new cars sold are diesels, and 7 million of the 10 million sold globally last year were bought in Europe.

T&E said there is much research to suggest that similar illegal devices are also used in Europe. Since 2009, when Volkswagen began using defeat devices, more than 40 million diesel cars have been sold in Europe, a sixth of all cars on the road today.

Volkswagen have claimed the defeat devices were the work of a handful of engineers. But the company delayed the launch of ‘clean’ diesels in the US from 2007 to 2009 because of the failure to achieve emissions limits. The use of defeat devices commenced in 2009. Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at T&E, said: ‘It is disingenuous of Volkswagen to suggest this problem was caused by a handful of engineers. Volkswagen had delayed the launch of these diesel cars due to emissions problems for nearly two years. It is inconceivable the board were unaware of the problems. That they chose to make themselves ignorant of the solution suggests the culture at Volkswagen was one focused solely on achieving results irrespective of the means or consequences.’

Every year over 500,000 people die prematurely from air pollution in Europe, according to the World Heath Organisation. Air pollution from diesel vehicles is known to exacerbate asthma and heart disease, and has been linked with birth defects. An analysis by the Guardian found Volkswagen’s cheating of emissions tests for 11 million cars resulted in nearly 1 million extra tonnes of air pollution every year – equal to the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture.

With such significant diesel sales in Europe, and the resulting health impacts, the focus since ‘Dieselgate’ has been on why the scam was not detected by the EU and its member states. T&E said the European testing system is much less independent and robust than that in the US where 10-15% of new models are retested by the US authorities in their own laboratories.

Also, in Europe carmakers ‘shop around’ for the best treatment from national certification authorities and directly pay for their services, while the job of the engineer overseeing the test is ultimately dependent on the next contract from the carmaker.

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