Volkswagen recently apologized for deliberately creating software for its TDI diesel engines that cheated EPA emissions testing. While this story is still developing, we’ve gathered what we know now so that VW owners — and everyone else — could understand the past, present and potential future of this debacle.
How did the emissions issues come to light?
Third-party tests performed by the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT) uncovered the emissions issues. The tests set out to prove a hypothesis that VW’s new generation of TDI diesel engines were cleaner than standard
The ICCT diesel emissions tests originated in Europe, where the group was shocked to discover that some of VW’s TDI-powered vehicles were producing more Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) than reported, according to a Bloomberg report. Astonished by these findings, the ICCT replicated the tests in the U.S., where emissions regulations are more stringent, confident the U.S. market vehicles would pass the tests.
ICCT first tested several diesel vehicles on a dynamometer or “rolling road” and then in the real world.
Driving from San Diego to Seattle, with the help of West Virginia University, the ICCT tested the emissions a Jetta TDI, Passat TDI and BMW X5 xDrive 35d. On the road trip, the Jetta produced 15 to 35 times the U.S. legal limit (legally referred to as Tier 2 Bin 5) of NOx. The Passat produced 5 to 20 times the legal limit. While the BMW’s emissions were at or below regulated rates. At the same time, California Air Resources Board (CARB) tested the vehicles in its laboratories and the vehicles passed, as they had for ICCT.
Then, in May 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and CARB opened a non-publicized inquiry into the VW Group’s emissions. In December 2014, Volkswagen performed its own tests, replicating ICCT and WVU’s tests, and claimed it discovered the reasons for the emissions discrepancy and recalled nearly 500,000 vehicles in order to fix them with a software update. Meanwhile, CARB continued to test the vehicles in question and found that the vehicles were still in violation of U.S. law.
On July 8, 2015, CARB informed both the EPA and VW of its findings. Because of this, before it would certify VW’s 2016 model year TDI models, the EPA demanded proof the carmaker had solved the real-world emissions issues. VW offered up excuses for the inconsistency in tailpipe NOx levels, but the EPA wasn’t buying it. Only then did VW admit it had installed a “defeat device,” which “reduces the effectiveness of the emission controls system,” as described by the EPA, that could detect when it was in testing mode versus a normal driving situation.
Weeks later, the EPA went public with the information, which has lead us to this point.
Which vehicles and engines are affected and how did they trick emissions testing?
Broadly, the 2.0-liter TDI diesel vehicles that were fitted with defeat devices span 2009 to 2015 from both Volkswagen and Audi. The VW models include the Jetta TDI, Passat TDI, Golf TDI, Jetta Sportwagen TDI, and Beetle TDI. The affected Audi models are the 2009 to 2013 A3 TDI as well as the new 2015 Audi A3 TDI. The engine that represents the biggest issue is code named the EA188. The new engine found in the 2015 models is referred to as the EA288 is also a culprit.
It is worth noting that, at the moment, no other VW Group TDI engine has been included in the notices of violation sent to Volkswagen on Sept. 18, EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said. That means models like the 3.0-liter V6 TDI diesel-powered Touareg is currently not affected by the emission cheating scandal.
What should owners do and expect next?
As of this moment, VW has not made public any plan of action or given any advice to its owners. Presumably, VW will need to make a recall of the roughly 482,000 affected vehicles in the U.S. (11 million cars worldwide could be affected).
The carmaker has two options for the fix. It can either:
- Change the engine software, which will significantly limit engine power output and fuel economy, or
- Install urea treatment systems, which will not only require significant vehicle modification — cutting into trunk or hatch cargo space — but also cost VW thousands of dollars per car.
Obviously, neither of these is a great solution for the company or for owners.
In the meantime, owners will need to essentially sit tight and just keep driving. As it stands, the initial sale of these vehicles was technically illegal. This has widespread consequences, as owners might not be able to re-register (at least in California) until the emissions are brought within the legal limit, nor will they be allowed to resell them. In fact, Volkswagen has sent out a stop-sale order to its dealers, halting the sales of new and used 2.0-liter TDI models.
It is foreseeable that, in addition to a recall, VW might also offer a buy-back program. Though, owners would likely have to settle for an amount below former market value of their cars, which before this story came to light held their value quite well. A class-action lawsuit has already been filed by people in 20 states, according to USA Today.
Why did the ICCT discover this and not the EPA?
It’s not yet known exactly how the defeat device knew it was in test mode rather than drive mode. We can surmise, however, that the vehicle wheel speed sensors could tell when it was on a rolling road, rather than driving down the street, because the rear wheels were stationary while the front wheels were moving. Sensing this, it would kick into test mode, the vehicle software would limit fuel flow, keeping both power and operating temperature low, which would limit emissions.
The EPA has a limited budget and staff and is not able to test all new vehicles each year. In fact, it only tests around 15% of new vehicles. With this constraint, it allows carmakers to effectively “self-certify.” Even when it does test, however, it does so in a controlled environment and not out on the open road.
What does this mean for the future of Volkswagen and diesel in the U.S.?
The fallout for VW will be astronomical. The company’s stock fell 38% over the last two days. The Justice Department is opening an investigation into the matter.
The government entanglement doesn’t end with the EPA. The U.S. offered a $1300 tax credit on the the Jetta TDI and Jetta TDI Sportwagen due to their so-called ‘green’ car status, which could add up to as much as $51 million, according to an Los Angeles Times report. In addition to fines, the government could demand that money back.
In response to the scandal, Volkswagen has also said it is setting aside the equivalent of $7.3 billion to pay for the fallout, according to a Bloomberg report.
Anecdotally, it seems confidence in the brand is all but destroyed, as enthusiasts who evangelized ‘clean-burning’ diesel have become disillusioned.
Whether consumer confidence will ever be able to return to VW up for debate. But it is hard to imagine the company will ever be trusted by buyers or the EPA to make accurate claims about its emissions.