Heard of the VW TDI Turbo Diesel Injection engine? The power and efficiency of a high performance diesel engine, but with clean emissions. Or at least, that’s what the ads said, positioning cars like the VW Jetta TDI as an alternative to expensive hybrid cars. Car magazines and newspapers ate it up.
TDI was the result of years of work. As Car and Driver explained:
[…] in 2007, the EPA’s new Tier 2 emissions laws required diesels to be as clean as their gasoline counterparts. Playing catch-up, VW spent ’07 and ’08 with a diesel hole in its U.S. lineup while engineers worked to meet the new rules with a heavily revised 16-valve, 2.0-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder that came with a particulate trap and a catalyst to kill off oxides of nitrogen (NOx). The Jetta TDI that emerged is clean enough to satisfy the emissions laws of all 50 states without resorting to urea injection, plus, it is powerful (140 horses) and quick enough (0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds) to satisfy us.
Except it was all a lie. The 2009 TDI, and all VW TDIs since then, cheated their way through emissions tests.
Basically, VW added firmware to track steering and pedal movements, so that the car could know when it was being emissions tested and switch on the performance-ruining pollution controls. Out on the road, the pollution controls were off the whole time.
The scam was finally uncovered when curious researchers measured vehicle emissions on a drive from San Diego to Seattle. It could have been uncovered earlier, but the DMCA prohibited researchers from investigating the firmware. The EPA crippled its own ability to investigate, in fact, by opposing rules that would have allowed firmware reverse engineering.
So what’s the impact?
We’re not talking about a minor amount of pollution here. The TDI engines spew out 15 to 35 times as much pollution as is allowed by law, and have been measured to do so on every real-world test route, regardless of the terrain. The nitrogen oxide emissions in question are classified by many governments as active risks to human health; investigations have begun in Germany and Korea to see if VW committed similar fraud in the rest of the world. There’s reason to think that they might have:
Air pollution is thought to account for 30,000 deaths each year in Britain. But health experts have long argued that there is far too much nitrogen oxide (NOx) in the air for car industry emissions figures to be accurate. They claim levels should have halved in recent years and yet they have remained stubbornly high.
In Britain and the rest of Europe, all new diesels should have met the Euro 6 emissions standard from September 1 but a recent report by campaigners Transport & Environment (T&E) found just one in 10 complied.
One BMW was pumping out more than 10 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide.
Indeed, VW are now saying that there are 11 million vehicles worldwide with the affected engines, though whether all those engines exceed local legal limits is still open to question.
VW are now facing fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle sold in the US, as well as an instant stop-sale order and the recall of every single TDI vehicle sold since 2009. Their stock price dropped by 20% in a day, and is down almost 40% at the time of writing. And it’s not just an EPA issue, as Ars Technica explains:
If—and that’s a big if—VW is allowed to repair the affected cars in the US market through a recall, it is virtually assured that the label values for those vehicles’ fuel economy ratings will be void. VW will have therefore effectively falsified the EPA mileage ratings of 482,000 cars. And that may be more than just an EPA issue. It may involve the Department of Commerce.
What would a recall involve? Popular Mechanics considers VW’s options, and it doesn’t look good:
All the other carmakers control diesel emissions by spraying a urea solution into the exhaust stream, where a catalyst converts it to ammonia. The ammonia breaks down NOx into nitrogen and water. If all of that sounds like it would be tough to bolt right in, you’re correct. Maybe VW can meet the standards without adding equipment—say, by tweaking the engine control unit (ECU) with a different tuning. But what if that new tuning meets the emissions standards but sacrifices performance or fuel economy? Now you’ve got 482,000 customers on a class action lawsuit.
The 2015 Golf TDI apparently has urea injection, and it was to feature in the upcoming SportWagen and new models of Jetta, Beetle and Passat. Unfortunately for VW, the US government is quite understandably not approving any new VW models for sale until they can be retested and confirmed as fully compliant with emissions standards.
Meanwhile, the White House is not happy that VW took federal subsidy money for their fake ‘clean diesel’ cars:
Still, one of VW’s rule-breaking models, the revamped Jetta TDI, proved very popular when it went on sale in 2009, in part because of Obama administration-approved subsidies designed to spur the sale of “clean diesel” technology.
At least $78 million was earmarked for federal income tax credit for the first run of diesel Jetta buyers in 2009 and 2010. At one point, dealers reported a wait of more than a month for some buyers in California.
Porsche and Audi are now under investigation to see if they’ve been committing similar fraud, and Audi has suspended diesel vehicle sales — the Audi A3 is affected too.
BMW have stated that, well, at least one of their vehicles is in full compliance (the X5 is, according to the researchers who uncovered the VW scam). Mercedes also claim innocence, but they’re throwing in the towel anyway, and will be gradually replacing diesels with hybrids.
The big question is how consumers will react to this. I’ve looked at VW TDI vehicles as an alternative to a hybrid or electric car, and if I had been defrauded into buying one I would be furious right now. There’s a VW TDI diesel class action lawsuit starting, and I’d be in on that, writing angry letters.
Diesel was never very popular in the US, and I’m thinking this could be its death warrant for the next decade — by which time it’ll be dead technology. Volkswagen’s best bet at this point is probably to market their cars to “rolling coal” rednecks.