On September 22, Volkswagen Motors (VW) admitted that it had cheated on emissions testing in Europe and the United States, by installing a piece of software known as a ‘defeat device’ in diesel cars.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) levelled accusations against the car maker last Friday.  While VW initially insisted the finding was a fluke, VW now acknowledges that the software is likely installed on 11 million passenger vehicles – most of them in Europe – which may have emitted up to 40 times the allowable levels of nitrous dioxide (NO2), an ozone forming compound. Now some are wondering if “clean diesel” is as dubious as “clean coal”.   

The move for “clean diesel” vehicle technology from the European automaker began as the EPA and European regulators sought ever more stringent vehicle emission standards for carbon dioxide (CO2) and NOX.  VW doggedly pursued clean diesel cars as a way of meeting strict emissions standards.  Diesel cars have long been popular in Europe and make up 50 percent of the passenger fleet in the region, due to the lower fuel cost and higher fuel efficiency compared to gasoline.  However, in smaller engines, NO2 emissions from diesel are harder to control.  NO2 is the primary contributor to ozone, which causes significant health effects such as asthma.

In the United States, historically diesel vehicles have not been popular, but VW’s major push of “clean diesel” was an attempt to woo U.S. consumers.  VW had touted their diesel cars as environmentally friendly, fuel efficient and more powerful than a hybrid.  The sales pitch was working. While diesel cars are only about 1 percent of U.S. total vehicles, sales of the VW diesel car in the United States grew, with almost a half a million of the cars selling in the United States since 2008.  The vehicle seemed to find a niche with U.S. drivers who were willing to pay more for an environmentally friendly, yet sporty car.

The stunning revelations may ultimately shake up the entire automotive world and end what some see as a cozy relationship between EU regulators and industry.  According to the Guardian, in Europe  “When independent testers, research groups … and motoring websites ask drivers to monitor their own fuel use and mileage, they find disparities in fuel economy of up to 30% and NO2 emissions three to five times higher than official test results.” Others have long suspected that manufacturers were cheating on emissions tests, with German auto association spokesman Gerd Lottsiepen stating, “we’ve had our suspicions for a long time but lacked evidence.”

The disparities between the official tests and real world testing of the VW diesel cars were uncovered by researchers at West Virginia University’s Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions Laboratory.

The researchers had been hired by the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) to do a simple emissions test on VW’s diesel cars.  Instead of testing the cars’ emissions in lab test tracks, the researchers tested the vehicle in a real-world driving environment. Using highly designed tracks and labs allows automotive manufacturers to specifically design cars to pass emissions tests, and there are numerous loopholes to the tests. In the United States, automotive manufacturers submit their own test results to EPA, but the EPA does spot-checks on vehicles, which led to the 2014 Hyundai-Kia emissions scandal.

Now EPA is intent on finding out how many other automotive makers could be employing software tricks in diesel cars to pass emission standards. In a separate test released by ICCT on September 24, a BMW diesel car also failed a real world emissions test.  In an interview, Peter Mock, ICCT’s Europe managing director commented “all measured data suggest that this is not a VW-specific issue.”

On September 25, EPA announced that it would be checking all manufacturers for the ‘default device,’ and will not reveal what additional tests manufacturers will have to undergo. With a global challenge to cut greenhouse gases to slow climate change, the pressure is on to make meaningful cuts to transportation emissions. Meanwhile, the global appetite for cars is growing. 

Will manufacturers continue to dupe regulators on emissions?  Without real-world, independently verified vehicle emission testing, it’s impossible to know.



For more information see:

How A Little Lab In West Virginia Caught Volkswagen's Big Cheat, NPR

Volkswagen is guilty – but it's not the only offender, The Guardian

E.P.A. to Bolster Testing Because of Volkswagen Scandal, The New York Times

Volkswagen 'Dieselgate' Fallout: Germany Tests Cars; Report Sends BMW Shares Down, NPR

The Volkswagen scandal: A mucky business, The Economist