How VW's Diesel Scam Was Discovered

VW's Golf TDI was the Green Car of the Year in 2009--an award since rescinded. (Photo: Wikipedia)

As we know now, the revelation that Volkswagen was using “defeat device” software to cheat on its diesel emissions came not from government regulators but from the modest and Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), whose mission is to provide unbiased research “to benefit public health and mitigate climate change.”

This is a true David and Goliath story. Read it and be amazed.

In 2013 and 2014, ICCT, working with a small academic team at West Virginia University, budgeted about $70,000 to test real-world emissions on some small diesels available in the U.S. market. They used portable emissions equipment, testing a VW Jetta TDI, VW Passat TDI and a BMW X5.

John German, an ICCT senior fellow and a veteran of both the EPA and two auto companies (Chrysler and Honda), set the study in motion. As the German newspaper Handelsblatt reported, "Mr. German had followed up a lead from his German colleague Peter Mock, who had already tested the toxic emissions of diesel models in Europe and observed significant deviations from the prescribed threshold values."

Canadian Clean diesel tour
VW TDIs lined up for Great Canadian Clean Diesel Tour in 2012. In reality, the tailpipes were smoking. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The goal wasn't to change the world, though it appears that way to some observers now. German told me that some European press are speculating that a fix was in to exempt Mercedes-Benz from the tests, but the truth is somewhat less dramatic: “The reality is that we couldn’t find a Mercedes to rent,” German said. “We got the X5 instead. There was no conspiracy.”

On the road, the Jetta exceeded the U.S. diesel standard for nitrogen oxide by 15 to 35 times, and the Passat five to 20 times. The BMW “was generally at or below the standard.”

emissions testing
Emissions testing in Seattle. The VWs were set to be on their best behavior when going through these stations. (Photo: Wendy House/Flickr)

The ICCT and West Virginia team were aghast at these results, which they triple-checked and confirmed. There was only one conclusion: “It’s clear that there were some software strategies at work,” said Daniel Carder, a team member who is interim director of the West Virginia college’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions.

The team passed its explosive results to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the EPA. That wasn’t last week, it was May of 2014. In December of that year, VW (which had first claimed it couldn’t replicate the ICCT/WVU results) finally took action and recalled the nearly 500,000 U.S. TDIs with two-liter engines and emission problems.

German is amazed that VW had the opportunity — back in 2014 — to get its cars into compliance (by removing the defeat device software during the recall). If it had quietly done that, it would have avoided the scandal now shaking its entire foundation. “It’s inexplicable,” he said. “They had a chance to fix it. Instead, they reflashed the memory and said that would solve the problem — but the emissions were still high. They were still trying to hide what they’d done with the software, and that’s beyond my comprehension.”

VW research headquarters in Germany.
VW research headquarters in Wolfsburg. The emphasis seems to have been on trying to contain the scandal. (Photo: Ralf Roletschek/ via Wikipedia/Creative Commons 'Attribution-NonCommercial-NonDerivative 3.0 (US)

CARB continued to test VW diesels, and they were still putting out far too much nitrogen oxide after the recall. Last July, EPA and VW got the bad news about its polluting cars. And the automaker continued to stall, only coming clean about the defeat devices after the EPA said it wouldn’t be able to sell its 2016 diesels, which make up 25 percent of its sales in the U.S.

Unlikely to end well

So where are we now? Nowhere good. The 500,000 TDIs in the U.S. need to be fixed, an expensive process that may involve installing sophisticated Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) emissions systems using tanks of urea in place of the simpler NOX traps on many of the cars now. Urea (aka AdBlue) is injected into the exhaust system, enabling the catalyst to convert NOX to nitrogen and water. It's by far the most effective way to go, and at presstime, VW announced a new diesel direction. "It was decided to switch over to installing only diesel drives with SCR and AdBlue technology in Europe and North America as soon as possible. Diesel vehicles will only be equipped with exhaust emissions systems that use the best environmental technology."

Paul Willis, general manager of VW Group UK, told the British Parliament Monday that the fix for affected cars in Europe probably won’t involve installation of urea systems. As German points out, the scandal “is 10 times bigger in Europe than it is in the U.S.” That’s because VW is such a large player there, and European Union regulators were already under attack for lax emissions enforcement — partly a result of the bureaucracy that comes with overlapping national authorities. “The scandal has opened a debate about Europe’s approach to regulating cars,” the New York Times reported. “And there is discomfort that it took United States regulators to begin an investigation into cheating.”

Further complicating the whole mess, which involves 11 million cars worldwide, is WV’s recent revelation of a second piece of mysterious software, which apparently came into play during the warm-up period (when cars have their highest emission levels). Regulators in California and Washington, D.C. are investigating what the software does.

Willis is the latest in a parade of executives, including U.S. CEO Michael Horn and all the high-ranking players who’ve been fired or suspended, who say they learned of the deception only recently. That leads to an obvious question: Well then, who did know? “It’s impossible to know how high this goes in the organization,” German said. “A middle-level manager could have said, ‘We’ll do what we have to do to meet these cost targets,’ or it could have gone much higher.”

Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of VW
Martin Winterkorn, the fired global CEO, was known to be a micromanager obsessed with breaking diesels in the U.S. market. (Photo: Wikipedia)

But if some rogue official ordered the deception, shouldn’t it have revealed to others in the company during validation testing? VW’s recently fired global CEO, Martin Winterkorn, was known to be a micromanager obsessed with building company sales in the U.S. But he claims to have known nothing about it.

German defends California’s CARB And EPA for their work on emissions regulation, and he doesn’t think it’s a problem that automakers test their own cars. “I worked at EPA when it moved away from routine testing and began to take more of an auditing role,” he said. “The reason was that we were certifying pre-production cars, and giving manufacturers certificates of conformity so they could begin building. But that’s not really what you want to do.”

German says the rubber hits the road with end-use testing of the kind that ICCT commissioned on the VW diesels. “EPA took the money it saved on testing pre-production cars and put it into end-use testing,” he said. “That way you prove that vehicles in production are being operated the way manufacturers said they would be.”

Or, you prove that they’re not being operated properly. And a global scandal erupts, drawing in a small D.C. nonprofit. “We were shocked here at ICCT,” German said. “It was overwhelming, like nothing we’d had before.”

And it’s not over yet. Want to delve even deeper? Here's Consumer Reports on how the cheating software works: