What You Need to Know About VW’s Diesel Emissions Scandal

So much for "clean diesel" (image via wikipedia)

Volkswagen admits they used software, known as a defeat device, on its supposedly “clean diesel” vehicles. The reason? To skirt around US emissions standards.

This doesn’t sit well with … well, just about anybody. Unless you're talking about lawyers.

Shortly after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) forced Volkswagen to recall 500,000 vehicles in the USA, VW admitted they had used the device on 11 million vehicles worldwide. Later on, an additional 800,000 vehicles were discovered to have poorer fuel economy because of higher than reported CO2 levels.

The whole situation is a mess and now the company faces tens of billions of dollars in fines from the US government, states, class-action lawsuits and other countries around the world. Here’s a look at what happened:

How VW Cheated

So how did one of the world’s largest automakers get away with cheating on such a massive scale? And can it ever win back its customers?

US Emissions Standards

Back in 2008 when the US implemented tougher emissions standards for cars, companies with diesel engines had to come up with solutions. For all the benefits of diesel engines – like fuel efficiency and power – it has one, big fat negative: they run dirty.

To meet the new regulations, many car companies started adding tanks of a urea-based solution – known as AdBlue – to their vehicles. Thanks the magic of chemistry, the ammonia in AdBlue helps the catalytic converter take nasty gasses like nitrous oxide (NOx) and convert them into nitrogen and water.

Why is this important? NOx – which sounds like a really bad 80’s band name – has been linked to emphysema and bronchitis, as well as being a leading cause of smog. It’s estimated that some urea-based solutions can reduce NOx emissions by 80%.

How VW Setup Their TDIs

On its smaller, 2.0L four-cylinder diesel engines, VW skipped the AdBlue (they do use urea injection on some newer models). Instead they installed a NOx trap which sits between the engine and the exhaust.

But in order for the trap to work, the engine needs to use more fuel. That left critics wondering what magical technology VW had come up with. Well, it turns out they didn’t come up with anything. They were just cheating.

The “Defeat Device”

Software running in the car’s engine control module (ECM) monitors the car’s steering wheel position, speed, duration of engine operation and barometric pressure. This “defeat device” then uses those factors to determine when the car is being driven normally (aka “drive mode”) and when it was being inspected for emissions output (aka “cheat mode”).

While in “cheat mode,” the software activates equipment to reduce the car’s emissions levels. As soon as testing is over, it’s back to dirty driving.

Just how much of a difference are we talking about here? Early reports indicate that emissions levels in “drive mode” are 40 times higher than the EPA limits. That’s a lot of smog.

“Compared with other run-ins between the EPA and automakers, VW’s alleged violation stands out in its brazenness.” — Automotive News

Why VW Cheated

As mentioned above, diesel engines are fuel efficient but tend to run dirty. Automakers have spent millions of dollars researching and testing solutions to reduce emissions while maintaining some of their MPGs.

VW couldn’t find a solution – or didn’t want to try – that they were happy with, so they went a more sinister route. The answer as to why they did it is pretty simple: money. Less money spent researching, and more money earned through sales.

The real questions are — how far up the VW food chain did this cheating decision go? How much in fines and class-action payouts will this ultimately cost the company? And will VW be able to salvage some customer trust when this is all said and done?<

Taking the Fall

On September 23, 2015, Martin Winterkorn resigned as CEO of Volkswagen. He said he “accepted responsibilities for the irregularities that [were] found in diesel engines.”

Winterkorn insisted, however, that he didn’t commit any misconduct and knew nothing of the problem. But before you shed a tear for the man, it’s worth noting that he could receive a $67 million dollar severance package.

Let that be a lesson to you, kids: it pays to be oblivious.

Who Figured it Out?

How’s this for karma – the problem was discovered during independent testing that wanted to show how clean VW’s TDIs are.

No, really.

It was all part of a campaign to show consumers that diesel engines are an eco-friendly option. Oops.

“We had no cause for suspicion,” German, U.S. co-lead of the International Council on Clean Transportation, said in an interview. “We thought the vehicles would be clean.”

The Timeline

  • Peter Mock, European managing director of a clean-air group, wanted help testing VW’s diesel engines to show European consumers that diesels can run clean.
  • Mock asked for help from John German, the former environmental chief for Honda’s U.S. operations, who now runs independent testing.
  • German asked for help from West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions because they had the right equipment for proper testing. Most notably, a portable emission measurement system that can be shoved up an exhaust pipe for real world testing.
  • Testers from German’s group drove monitor-equipped TDIs from San Diego to Seattle (which is an awesome gig by the way, free drive up the Pacific Coast Highway? Yes please!) The 1,300 mile trip through varying conditions would expose any potential scheme in the VWs.
  • The tests revealed that on the open road, the test Jetta exceeded the US nitrogen oxide emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The test Passat was 5 to 20 times higher than the standard. Another car, the BMW X5, passed the test.
  • An investigation was opened by the EPA in May 2014.
  • While under investigation, VW said it identified the problem and proposed a fix that resulted in the recall of nearly 500,000 US vehicles in December 2014.
  • The California Air Resources Board continued to test VWs after the recall and found that NOx levels were still in violation, despite VW’s “fix.” CARB shared those findings with VW and the EPA on July 8, 2015. At the same time, they threatened to withhold certificates that effectively halt VW diesel sales in California. The EPA agreed and said they wouldn’t approve the cars for sale without an explanation for the “real world” discrepancies.
  • VW allegedly kept giving regulators false explanations, none of which satisfied the EPA or CARB.
  • In September, 2015, while facing the threat of not being able to sell any 2016 TDIs, VW admitted it had installed a “defeat device.”

Which VW Vehicles Are Affected

The VW emissions scandal is actually two scandals, rolled into one lung-filling party.

Diesel Engines Releasing 40X The Legal NOx

4-cylinder, diesel engines in the USA:

Make Model Years
Audi A3 2009-2015
Volkswagen Beetle 2009-2015
  Golf 2009-2015
  Jetta 2009-2015
  Passat 2014-2015

The CO2 Spewin' Crew

Volkswagen admitted that over 1 million cars are giving false C02 readings which affects fuel economy. Over 800,000 are outside the US and they are all from the 2016 model year.

Make Models
Audi A1, A1 Sportback
Seat Ibiza 5 Türer, Ibiza 3 Türer, Ibiza Sport Tourer, Toledo, Leon, Leon SC, Leon Sport Tourer
Skoda Fabia, Fabia Combi, Rapid, Yeti, Octavia, Octavia Combi, Superb, Superb Combi
Volkswagen Polo, Tiguan, Jetta, Scirocco, Golf Cabriolet, Golf, Golf Sportsvan, Touran, CC, Passat, Caddy, T6

What’s Next for Volkswagen?

Beyond the 450 lawsuits (and counting) and the bruised public image that need mending, there’s the issue of how the hell are they going to fix all these cars? Particularily, how will they implement a fix that isn’t to the detriment of performance or fuel economy? Owners did, after all, pay extra for those features.

VW got off to a good start in Europe, announcing its EA 189 Diesel fix on November 30, 2015. The solution involves a “flow straightener” in front of the air mass sensor to help “calm swirled air” and increase the sensor’s accuracy. But meanwhile…

VW Isn’t Doing Itself Any Favors in the US

As mentioned before, the US has stricter emissions laws. That means any fixes are going to be more complicated, costly and scrutinized. In other words, a “flow straightener” ain’t gonna cut it here.

VW knows this and has already said that US diesels will take years to fix.

They’ve already proposed one solution that was promptly shot down by the EPA and CARB. The plans were said to “contain gaps and lack sufficient detail,” and do “not adequately address overall impacts on vehicle performance, emissions, and safety.”

CEO Matthias Mueller, meanwhile, was telling NPR that VW didn’t lie, they just didn’t understand the question. He later blamed his answer on the stress of the day and asked for a redo on the inteview.

Oh, a redo? I bet some VW owners would like one of those too, Mr Mueller.

Information for VW or Audi Diesel Owners

If you own one of these “clean diesel” cars, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

  • Right now there isn’t one, but a recall is surely on the horizon. VW is blatantly violating federal law so it’s only a matter of time. To make sure you don’t miss any information about the recall, sign up for CarComplaints.com’s free email alerts so we can notify of you of any new information.
  • These cars came with a premium price, and you deserve reimbursement. Girrard Gibbs LLP has started a class-action lawsuit for consumers who bought into VW’s false hype. We will soon have a form where you can contact Girrad Gibbs to take part in the class action.
  • It’s important to note that there is no safety concern so you can keep driving your car until VW comes up with a real solution (unless you suffer from a respiratory disease). You’re just not being as good to the environment as VW led you to believe.
  • Want to trade in your car for a new one? That could get tricky. Right now VW dealers are not allowed to sell any new or used TDIs that have been named in this scandal. That means they likely will not want to take yours. At least not yet, so sit tight.

VW’s “Goodwill Package”

Volkswagen setup a “goodwill package” for certain owners and lessees in the US. The package included:

  • A $500 prepaid Visa gift card that can be used on anything
  • A $500 prepaid card that can be used at VW dealerships.

But, wait — there’s more! If you call now the automaker is also throwing in free 240hour roadside assistance for three years.

Why You Should Read the Fine Print

Lawyers of plaintiffs in over 350 lawsuits have serious questions about the cardholder agreement owners need to sign when accepting the goodwill package. Specifically, will it waive the right to sue or take part of a class action against VW later on?

Volkswagen said it will provide a $500 prepaid Visa gift cars to certain US owners and lessees as part of a “goodwill package

On top of the legal remifications, two US senators called the offer “insultingly inadequate.” The senators said if the company really wanted to spread goodwill, they’d offer a buy-back option and do it without taking away the owner’s right to sue.

VW Emissions Scandal in Stories

This is a huge, compicated mess of a story. It involves multiple governing branches and regulators, massive financial implications and a huge hit to one of the world’s largest automaking brands. Here’s a reverse chronological look at the stories that make up this story:

EPA and CARB Reject VW's Proposed Emissions Fix →

01/12/2016: The Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board say VW's proposed fix isn't good enough. Meanwhile, VW persists that they never lied about emissions — something the US Regulators don't buy.

Volkswagen Upsets State Attorneys General by Withholding Documents →

01/10/2016: Volkswagen is taking heat from a group of U.S. attorneys general after the automaker said German privacy laws allow them to keep internal documents out of the hands of U.S. investigators.

Department of Justice files lawsuit against Audi, Porsche and VW for possibly billions of dollars →

01/04/2016: The day finally arrived where the the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil complaint in federal court. The complaint could result in bllions of dollars in government fines.

VW Looks to Keep Cases Out of Court →

12/20/2015: How do you stop owners from suing you? Offer them money from a compensation fund! And if you’re going to set one of those up, might as well go with the king of compensation — Kenneth R. Feinberg, who has created and administered similar funds for the GM ignition switch, BP oil spill and 9/11 families.

Amidst 450 Lawsuits, VW Says C02 Problems Overstated →

12/15/2015: Did I mention the 450 lawsuits are in California alone? That doesn’t count the hundreds of other pending suits out there. Impressive.

VW’s Knew Its ‘Clean Diesels’ Couldn’t Meet US Standards →

12/15/2015: What do you do when you really want to bring a performance diesel to the US, but don’t have the technology to reduce emissions? You have two options. Go back to the drawing-board, like Mazda did with its Skyactiv-D, or cheat your pants off. VW has no pants.

VW Has Emissions Problems in the US, Germany, India and South Korea →

12/5/2015: VW is facing the maximum fine of $18 billion in the USA, and said it is planning on losing $2.3 billion to other governments that blew money on tax breaks.

Bosch Named Co-Conspirator in VW Emissions Lawsuit →

12/01/2015: A new lawsuit says Bosch warned VW that using “defeat devices” would be a criminal offense all the way back in 2007. That didn’t stop them from selling or licensing 11 million of the components over the next 7 years. Just saying a few words doesn’t remove guilt, when you let money talk for the next 7 years.

VW Says EA 189 Diesel Fix is Ready to Go in Europe →

11/30/2015: Volkswagen says its ready for the enormous task of fixing European diesel engines with the use of a “flow straightener.” I can only assume the flux capacitor solution didn’t work.

VW is Deep in the Heart of Texas Lawsuits →

11/29/2015: I guess it’s true what they say, everything is bigger in Texas. I mean, just look at all these lawsuits.

VW Admits V6 3-Liter Engines Have Defeat Devices Too →

11/24/2015: Tack on another 85,000 diesel cars to the list of cheaters, as VW admits that their V6 3L TDIs have had “defeat devices” going back to 2009. They had initial denied these cars had any problems. At some point they’ll realize they can’t get away with this stuff anymore, right?

Influential Center for Auto Safety Sues VW for “Clean Diesels” →

11/16/2015: VW has already said it’s going to take a long time, possibly years, to fix all the diesel engines in the US. The Center for Auto Safety wants a more immediate solution. Such as forcing VW to pay a portion of its annual net profits into a fund used to offset the environmental impact of their lies.

C02 Emissions List Expands to Audi, Seat, and Skoda →

11/15/2015: The automaker says this latest batch of 430,000 vehicles are all 2016 model year vehicles with incorrect CO2 values that will necessarily alter fuel economy values.

The Goodwill Package: Read the Fine Print First →

11/11/2015: VW owners eligible to receive a prepaid Visa card and a free towing in exchange for getting caught in the middle of the emissions scandal, but at what cost? It’s a bit unclear if accepting the “gift” will waive an owner’s right to be part of a class-action later.

Two Senators Call VW’s Offer to Owners “Insultingly Inadequate” →

11/10/2015: VW calls it a “goodwill package” — a $500 prepaid Visa card to US owners and lessees. But wait, there’s more! Act now and you’ll also get a free tow. No word on if you can request to tow your car to the bottom of the ocean.

VW Admits to Higher Carbon Dioxide Levels and Lower Fuel Economy →

11/3/2015: Step aside, NOX, there’s a new cheater in town. This time it’s CO2 levels and the admission that 800,000 VWs are getting lower fuel economy than EPA estimates.

EPA Busts Volkswagen Over More Illegal Emissions →

11/2/2015: The first EPA notice of violation included 2-liter engines that emitted up to 40x the legal limit of nitrogen oxides. This second notice of violation only includes 3L engines that are emitting up to nine times the legal levels of NOX in 2014–2016 VW, Audi and Porsche vehicles.

Volkswagen Might Have Committed Fraud by Pushing for Tax Credits →

11/1/2015: Democratic Senator Ed Markey says VW should have never received credits for clean diesel technology when there was nothing “clean” about the emissions systems. VW could be looking at time in court for tax fraud. Any penalties would be in addition to the $18 billion VW could be fined for violating clean air laws in the U.S.

59 Deaths Related to Excess Volkswagen Emissions →

10/30/2015: A peer-reviewed study by Harvard and MIT estimates that 59 deaths occurred in the US from 2008–2015 because of VW’s excess emissions. The researchers calculated emissions and effects by using data about traffic, average miles driven, weather and heath issues.

Should VW Owners Get to Skip Payments? →

10/26/2015: How’s this for a solution to the emissions mess? A VW Credit lawsuit says owners shouldn’t have to make monthly payments on their cheating cars until they’re fixed. Or possibly cancel the entire balance due to fraud.

Roughly 8.5 Million Diesels Need to be Recalled in Europe →

10/16/2015: VW had requested to handle recalls in Europe on their own terms. That didn’t fly with German officials that ordered a mandatory recall of 2.5 million vehicles. That’s a number that balloons to 8.5 million across other European Union countries.

California’s Strict Emissions Laws Bad News for VW →

10/15/2015: VW is public enemy #1 in California, which is the only state in the US capable of creating its own emissions laws, thanks to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). If VW thought federal US emissions laws were strict, they must have been verklempt over CA’s laws.

VW Says it Will Take Years to Fix the Diesel Mess in the US →

10/9/2015: VW’s new CEO, Michael Horn, said they can’t start fixing US diesels until 2016 and it could take between 5 and 10 hours to fix each one to meet US emissions standards. I’m not great at math, but that’s a a whole lot of hours. Wouldn’t it be easier to spend 10 minutes at a crusher and just pay VW owners back?

VW Faces Flood of Lawsuits →

10/1/2015: In the most predictable of all story lines, VW is facing an onslaught of lawsuits over their emissions scandal. There are at least 70 at this time, with hundreds more on the way from consumers, state officials, federal officials, stock-holders and dealership employees. At this point, who isn’t suing VW?

VW Sued in Canada for $1 Billion →

09/27/15: Canada is joining the US in suing VW for violating common law, being negligent, defrauding customers, and engaging in unfair business practices. Canadians even sound nice when they’re suing you for $1 billion, eh?

VW Sets Aside $7.3 Billion for Scandal →

09/22/15: It’s kind of cute that VW thinks $7.3 billion will be enough to cover all their emissions problems. The company faces up to $18 billion in fines from the EPA alone, and that doesn’t cover other countries or the countless class-actions to come.

VW Lawsuit Filed Over “Defeat Devices” →

09/21/15: Lawyers, start your lawsuits. Volkswagen has spent years spouting the benefits of its “clean diesel” technology and watching as consumers bought into the false hype. Now they’ll spend years dealing with lawsuits for their shady practices.

Volkswagen Caught Cheating EPA Rules →

09/18/2015: The story that started it all. The EPA issued Volkswagen a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act alleging the maker of VW and Audi cars used a “defeat device” to get around EPA emission standards for air pollutants.

In Conclusion, Why This is a Big Deal

Despite the obvious terrible deception and its impact on the earth and consumer’s wallets, here are some parting thoughts on why this story is so crazy:

  • Owners loved the blend of power and supposed fuel efficiency that these “clean diesels” were supposed to provide. So much so that they were willing to pay a premium between $1000 and $7000 depending on the car. Will VW be able to recover these loyal customers?
  • VW had already been struggling in the United States as it started making cheaper cars in an effort to become the world’s biggest automaker. And they did, until everyone realized that a cheaply made VW kind of stinks. VW’s Tiguan also failed to capture the crossover-loving nature of the US consumer.
  • VW put a lot of time and money into a ”clean diesel” campaign and this is a massive blow. Not only to VW the brand, but also for the future of diesel cars in the US.
  • Any fix is surely going to come with headaches. As GreenCarReports points out, “if VW is able to develop a fix and get it approved, the performance and fuel efficiency of their cars might fall.”
  • Owners who thought they drove environmentally-friendly cars have been contributing to smog and a wide-range of respiratory problems via high levels of nitrous oxides for years. This could lead to a high level of public outrage.
  • Even with the CEO gone, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people that multiple people in VW’s chain of command weren’t involved in this deceit.

Actions You Can Take

This step is crucial, don't just complain on forums! The sites below will actively manage your complaints and turn them into useful statistics. Both CarComplaints.com and the CAS will report dangerous trends to the authorities and are often called upon by law firms for help with Class Action lawsuits. Make sure to file your complaint on all three sites, we can't stress that enough.

  1. Step 1: File Your Complaint at CarComplaints.com

    CarComplaints.com is a free site dedicated to uncovering problem trends and informing owners about potential issues with their cars. Major class action law firms use this data when researching cases. Add a Complaint

  2. Step 2: Notify the Center for Auto Safety

    The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is a pro-consumer organization that researches auto safety issues & often compels the US government to do the right thing through lobbying & lawsuits. Notify the CAS

  3. Step 3: Report a Safety Concern to NHTSA

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the US agency with the authority to conduct vehicle defect investigations & force recalls. Their focus is on safety-related issues. Report to NHTSA

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