Volkswagen Diesel Scandal Explained
By now, you’ve heard about Volkswagen’s #DieselGate or #DieselApocalypse – that the automaker somehow cheated the U.S. EPA into thinking its diesel-powered cars were cleaner than they were. Funny hashtags and aging political scandal references aside, the situation is dire, to say the least.
Volkswagen is facing upwards of $18 billion dollars in fines from the U.S. government and even jail time for many of its executives. Heck, some analysts are speculating VW will even stop selling its TDI diesel vehicles in the U.S. altogether.
So how did all this get started? Well, that’s an excellent question, but it’s only one of a gaggle of questions begging to be asked. Who at VW is responsible? Which vehicles are affected? What are VW dealerships to do? And how will VW fix this enormous mess?
I’ll attempt to solve these mysteries with answers from the experts, the EPA, and even Volkswagen. So keep reading for the rundown.
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The dieselgate scandal has roots running clear back to 2005 when VW began exploring a new four-cylinder diesel powerplant for the U.S. market. The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported that VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard lead development along with Audi engineer Rudolf Krebs. A prototype engine was developed that performed well in testing in 2006.
The report states Bernhard and Krebs argued that an AdBlue urea system was the only way the new diesel could meet strict U.S. emissions standards. The system would have added an additional $335 to each vehicle – a cost VW executives were apparently unwilling to front.
Somewhere along the way, Bosch, a well-known parts supplier, developed an engine software program that would allow the diesel engine to run in “testing mode.” However, Bosch reportedly warned VW in 2007 not to use the software in production vehicles, as it would be illegal.
Volkswagen reportedly got a second warning in 2011, this time from an engineer inside the company. The unnamed engineer warned that the emissions testing practices were illegal, but was apparently ignored.
The Physical Problem
Ok, so now we’ve got an understanding of what went down. Now let’s figure out what VW actually did when it “cheated.”
First we’ve got to establish how the TDI was intended to work. Normally, a small amount of unburned fuel is allowed to escape the combustion chamber and enter the exhaust system. There, the fuel is captured by the vehicle’s NOx trap, a cylindrical device on the exhaust pipe that is designed to clean the exhaust before it leaves the car. The NOx trap uses that fuel to help burn off the nitrogen oxide in the exhaust fumes, therefore cleaning the air of harmful pollutants.
The NOx trap uses that fuel to help burn off the nitrogen oxide in the exhaust fumes, therefore cleaning the air of harmful pollutants.
This process is all well and good, but it consequently uses more fuel and decreases the car’s fuel economy by a small percentage. Decreased fuel economy isn’t good for the TDI image, so VW instead decided to reduce the amount of unburned fuel entering the exhaust system. This increased the engine’s power and fuel economy, but also increased the levels of NOx exiting the tailpipe.
Cleverly, the software in question uses several parameters and data acquisition methods to know when the vehicle is sitting on a dyno and likely being tested for emissions. The engine management software then enters its “cheat” mode and dumps more unburned fuel into the exhaust, increasing the effectiveness of the NOx trap and ultimately making the car run cleaner to pass emissions testing.
The whole scandal revolves around one engine – the first-generation 2.0-liter TDI four-cylinder known as the EA189. The engine was used in the Jetta, Jetta Sportwagen, Golf, Beetle, and the Audi A3 TDI for the model years 2009 through 2014.
It’s very important to note that the 2015 model year brings an entirely new 2.0-liter TDI engine known as the EA288. The new TDI replaced the old EA189 in each of the cars listed above and was said to have 40 percent lower emissions at its launch. Other than its displacement size, the EA288 is a completely new engine, sharing almost nothing with the previous mill. Volkswagen even added the all-important AdBlue urea aftertreament system to the exhaust. Nevertheless, the EPA has ordered a stop-sell on all 2009 through 2015 Volkswagen 2.0-liter TDI models until the details can be sorted out and further testing is complete. Even 2016 TDI models are being withheld from U.S. sales.
Here’s how TheVerge.com explains it
Affected Models, Including 2015 Stop-Sells:
- Jetta (MY 2009 – 2015)
- Jetta Sportwagen (MY 2009 – 2014)
- Beetle (MY 2012 – 2015)
- Beetle Convertible (MY 2012 – 2015)
- Audi A3 (MY 2010 – 2015)
- Golf(MY 2010 – 2015)
- Golf Sportwagen (MY 2015)
- Passat (MY 2012 – 2015)
Fixing The Problem
Until Volkswagen announces its plans and strategy for fixing the affected vehicles, we can’t know for sure how things will go down. However, judging by the problem, it could be as simple as a software upgrade. Eliminating the “cheat” and allowing the NOx trap to work as intended would likely improve the cleanliness of the EA189 engines, but it’s unknown if that alone would allow the engines to pass the EPA’s inspections.
On the other hand, some analysts say VW will need to install the AdBlue system to each car in order to comply with the EPA’s Clean Air Act. That would obviously cost significantly more money and cause owners to be without their vehicles for a longer amount of time.
And then there’s the problem of scale.
The sheer number of cars affected is staggering – 482,000 vehicles in the U.S. alone and 11 million vehicles worldwide.
The sheer number of cars affected is staggering – 482,000 vehicles in the U.S. alone and 11 million vehicles worldwide. What’s more, Volkswagen’s sub-brands are also tangled in the mess; not only Audi, but SEAT and Skoda as well. Broken down, the numbers show that five million are from VW, 2.1 million are from Audi, and 1.2 million are from Skokda. There are also 1.8 million vehicles included from VW’s light commercial fleet. However, Volkswagen’s newly appointed CEO, Matthias Mueller, says the number of vehicles actually affected might be lower. That’s because the software cheat is only active in a portion of the vehicles. Whether that’s true or not has yet to be vetted.
Regardless of the fix, VW dealerships will have a long line behind the service department’s garage door. We can only hope the fix is small and quick, allowing the massive flood of TDI vehicles to be repaired quickly.
It’s Not All Bad News For VW Dealerships
Ok, so most of this means Volkswagen dealerships are dealing with a disaster. In fact, year-over-year September sales grew only 0.6 percent, while nearly every other automaker in the U.S. posted growth in the double digits thanks to Labor Day falling on September rather than August as it had in 2014. News of the EPA’s investigation broke September 18, giving VW more than half the month of unhindered sales. October’s sales numbers will be the real test.
So despite all this, there is a potential for VW’s all-new EA288 2.0-liter turbodiesel to actually pass the EPA’s emissions testing. If that’s the case, VW will have a slew of new TDI-equipped Jettas, Passats, Beetles, and Golfs to sell – considering folks will still buy them.
Remember, the EA288 replaced the now infamous EA189 TDI engine found in 2009 through 2014 model year cars. The new 2.0-liter comes with the AdBlue system that could potentially keep its NOx levels in check.
What’s To Come?
Well, Volkswagen will decide how to fix the problem, develop the necessary parts or computer programs, deliver them to its world-wide dealership network, and initiate a recall on the affected vehicles – all while fully complying with government regulations.
Sadly, this scandal reaches far past the confines of Volkswagen and its subsidiaries. The EPA is sure to increase its watch on automakers. Self-testing for EPA compliance will no longer be allowed. The EPA has already told automakers it may conduct real-world road tests of diesel vehicles with specialized equipment monitoring emissions output.
Specifically, General Motors’ new 2.8-liter Duramax turbodiesel four-cylinder in the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon will undergo extensive testing before being released for sale. The same can be said for Nissan’s new Titan XD and its 5.0-liter Cummins V-8 turbodiesel. And of course, existing diesel models will undergo the same testing. Automakers currently selling diesel vehicles include BMW, Mercedes, General Motors, Ford, FCA, and Nissan.
It’s plain to see Volkswagen’s dishonesty will have decades of ramifications on the auto industry here in the U.S. and the world over. Stick around to watch how it all unravels.
Stay tuned for updates as events unfold and heads roll.