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The Diesel Scandal

diesel car exhaust emitting fumes

Vehicle Emissions have been a focus of many governments around the world

In May 2014 a non-profit organisation in America called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) conducted a number of real-world emissions tests on German manufactured vehicles. Emissions rules in the US are stricter than those in the EU and the ICCT was looking at the performance of cars made in Europe for the US market.

The vehicles had already been certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) facility so the ICCT knew what emission levels to expect.

There was no malice or intent in the study being conducted. It wasn’t some kind of environmental lobby looking to gather evidence about car emissions to take up with car manufacturers, it was instead a genuine real-life emissions test with no objective other than to report their findings on how European cars manufactured for the US market had improved their diesel emissions. They didn't know that what they were about to uncover would send shockwaves around the motor industry.

Initial Testing

The team were mostly interested in the VW Passat as it had a newer emissions system. They gave the Passat a long test drive from Los Angeles to Seattle and back (about 2,500 miles). When they looked at the results of the test, they found that the emissions were not only radically different to the official test results that had been conducted by CARB, but that they also far exceeded legal limits. In excess of twenty times the NOx levels recorded by CARB.

The VW Jetta had similar results, but the BMW results were within the expected real-world limits.

What the ICCT hadn't realised right away was that what they had stumbled upon one of the car industry's biggest ever frauds.

Up until this point, a low-emission car was considered one that produces low levels of Carbon Dioxide (which was seen as the major concern of the time so other pollutants were ignored).

The discovery made by the ICCT later had the knock-on effect of moving focus solely from Carbon Dioxide emissions to include other pollutants created by cars including Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

a diesel VW Jetta

A VW Jetta

a diesel VW Passat

A VW Passat

a diesel BMW X5


Tackling Acid Rain, Ozone Depletion and Air Pollution

Over time, many governments have implemented legislation to reduce several of the particulates produced by motor vehicles in an effort to address Acid Rain, Ozone Depletion and Air Pollution.

In America, the restrictions on emissions were becoming stricter and in 1999 these restrictions reduced quite substantially the allowable levels of NOx produced by cars from 1.0 gram per mile to 0.04 grams per mile. These new restrictions were to be phased in during the period from 2004 to 2009.

In rather simple terms, when the phasing in period ended, VW's cars were not compliant with these new restrictions. Rather than admit it, they decided instead to deceive the testing processes to make it look as though the diesel emissions of their vehicles were below the required levels.

Manufacturers must be forced to meet air-quality and vehicle efficiency standards in the real world, and regulators need the tools and authority that will enable them to do that.

- Aup Bandivadekar, ICCT's Passenger Vehicle Program Director

VW's vehicles could have met the diesel emissions standards, but to do so meant that the cars lost much of their performance and would arguably be less attractive to consumers. The solution was to implement two separate operational modes in the engines software management system. One that operated during testing and one that operated during normal 'real-world' driving conditions.

During testing, the cars performance results (acceleration, MPG and so on) were not something that were being scrutinised so it was simple enough to essentially place the vehicle into a state of emissions compliance by reducing the power and efficiency of the vehicle whilst it was being tested.

When regulators finally obtained the code for the VW Engine Management Unit, the mystery was finally resolved

It was easy enough for VW to identify (through the vehicle's engine management unit) that the lack of input from many of the car's other sensors (things like the steering not moving and the brakes not being used) indicated that the vehicle was not actually being driven on the road and so the vehicle responded by placing itself into a kind of 'test mode'.

a sales chart depicting how diesel car companies profited from the emissions cheating

Making money isn't bad, but lying to make money is

In the pursuit of profit

In the pursuit of money, companies rarely care about the consequences. You only have to look at the controversy surrounding the Amazon Rain Forest, Fracking and water companies pouring tens of millions of gallons of sewage into our seas and rivers to see that it's money first, everything else second.

With that in mind, governments around the world put in place laws to control what companies can or cannot be do. If you look at China's smog problem over the last couple of decades, any improvement did not come from the goodness of the hearts of those businesses that were previously polluting the air. Instead, it came from the Chinese Government's intervention.

If companies feel free to disregard the law, then nothing would improve and nothing would change.

Some companies (like VW) even earned green car subsidies and tax friendly benefits as part of the amazing environmentally friendly emissions solutions being put into their vehicles.

When it all came on top

When VW were first quizzed about the emissions discrepancies they denied everything and blamed technical errors. CARB and the EPA continued to investigate the emissions problems whilst VW continued to claim that there was nothing actually wrong. At one point the EPA threatened not to give VW the required certification on their 2016 models, but still VW denied everything.

It's madness to think at this point that VW ever thought the EPA or any other organisation couldn't simply just get hold of a few cars and test them? How could the emission problem stay hidden for much longer?

The EPA eventually managed to obtain, from third party sources, the code behind VW's Engine Management Unit and the mystery was eventually solved. They found a sub-routine called 'Acoustic Condition' that looked at the information being fed back about the vehicles speed, steering and traction control systems to ascertain if the car was really being driven or not. Depending on whether or not the car was really being driven, dictated how the engine would operate and whether or not the emissions being produced would be compliant or not.

In August 2015 VW Employees were being questioned again by the EPA and stuck to their guns, maintaining at first that there was no problem. Eventually, however, they caved and told the EPA everything.

a diesel car executive looking shocked at being found out

Making money isn't bad, but lying to make money is



EPA Notice

EPA Press Statement

ICCT Further Revelations

The following month, the EPA wrote to VW and issued them with a Notice of Violation and…

…so began Dieselgate

It didn't end there though. VW continued to fight the EPA and obstruct their investigation and in November 2015 the EPA issued another Notice of Violation of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche for producing and selling certain 2014-2016 3.0 litre diesel cars and SUVs that included a software device that circumvented EPA emissions standards.

From there, the scandal spread to many other manufacturersa and multiple legal actions across many countries.