Everything You Need to Know about the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal

On Friday, September 18th, the Environmental Protection Agency made a surprising announcement –  Volkswagen’s “clean diesel” cars are really not that clean at all. From model years 2009 to 2015, the German automakers had installed software on 500,000 thousand vehicles in the US and in 11 million vehicles worldwide that would trick regulators into believing the vehicles were compliant with emissions standards when tested.

Immediate Repercussions

The EPA has classified the deceitful software as a “defeat device,” prohibited under the Clean Air Act1. Interestingly enough, Volkswagen faced similar charges in 1973 and agreed to a settlement of $120,000, a far cry from the billions of dollars in charges it faces today. There is yet to be a recall of the affected cars, but dealers have been ordered not to sell any remaining 2015 or 2016 models. Volkswagen also must deal with over 200 criminal lawsuits from federal agencies, state and local governments and individuals. In the days following the blowout, Volkswagen stock dropped 25% and then CEO Martin Winterkorn stepped down, denying any involvement. Three other officials, Heinz-Jakob Neusser, Ulrich Hackenberg, and Wolfgang Hatz were suspended. Government and environmental agencies around the world are are beginning their own investigative actions as well.

How to unveil fraud

The tests that ultimately caused the downfall of Volkswagen diesel engines were actually first done by the International Council on Clean Transportation to try to prove the positive capabilities of “clean diesel.” When tests done in Europe were full of discrepancies, e, John German, U.S. co-lead of the group, went to West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions for help. In the lab, two Volkswagen models, the Passat and the Jetta, passed with flying colors. But in the open-road tests, the Passat exceeded U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions standards by 5 to 20 times and the Jetta by 15 to 35. The EPA then opened an investigation in May 2014. When Volkswagen had difficulty getting their 2016 models approved due to these discrepancies, the company admitted to using misleading software, bringing us to where we are today.

In the lab, two Volkswagen models, the Passat and the Jetta, passed with flying colors. But in the open-road tests, the Passat exceeded U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions standards by 5 to 20 times and the Jetta by 15 to 35


Volkswagen's logo

Who are the real culprits?

While newly appointed CEO Michael Horn repeatedly puts the blame on rogue software engineers, the validity of his claims has been challenged. Lawmakers such as Representative Chris Collins from New York claim that the addition of the cheating code to the vehicles’ emissions controls would have been too complex for a few individuals to pull off.  “I categorically reject everything VW is saying about a couple of rogue engineers. It goes way, way higher than that.” Others argue that the “rogue engineer” hypothesis is entirely plausible due to Volkswagen’s infamous company culture of fear and authoritarianism under former CEO Martin Winterkorn. Perhaps a group of engineers had acted out of fear for their jobs? Regardless, splitting the blame, especially for the sake of legal and monetary consequence, will be a difficult task.

Not a Victimless Crime

There may not be a death count related to the Volkswagen scandal, but the effects of the pollutants are not to be ignored. In normal driving, these cars emit between 10 and 40 times the allowable levels of nitrogen oxides by the EPA. When exposed to sunlight, nitrogen oxide reacts with other pollutants in the air to form ozone, which is linked to lung damage, respiratory and cardiovascular illness, and early death. The effect is especially noticeable in areas such as Los Angeles where there are already high levels of pollution, and even the smallest addition can significantly diminish air quality. However, it’s extremely difficult to quantify the excess pollution; variables range from the number of miles driven per car to the climate and weather conditions in every area nitrogen oxides were released.

The Costs

As the environmental impact of the emissions is so hard to determine, the costs Volkswagen will be expected to pay will be difficult to determine as well. The company has already sanctioned 6.5 billion euros, or $7.3 billion, to pay for the costs, while the EPA has the authority to pursue a fine of $18 billion, $37,500 per faulty vehicle. To put this into perspective, General Motor’s scandal cost the company over $2 billion while Toyota paid $1.2 billion in its criminal settlement – just a fraction of Volkswagen’s estimate.

Larger Perspectives

“Dieselgate” has brought to light a much bigger problem – Volkswagen hasn’t been the only automaker whose emissions tests come out far better than their road tests. Independent tests carried out by the General German Automobile Club (ADAC) have already incriminated vehicles from Volvo, Mercedes, Jeep, BMW, and Ford, just to name a few. This raises the question – in a time when cars have enough code to be classified as computers on wheels, how will any car company be caught cheating emissions tests? Proposed solutions include more rigorous emissions testing organized with international standards and requiring all software source code be made public. As more and more of our infrastructure, our finances, our homes, and our lives operate by software-controlled machinery, more drastic measures will need to be taken to keep its regulation in check.


Clean Air Act of 1963 – United States federal law designed to control air pollution on a national level







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