In the escalating battle between electric and hydrogen for the car of the future, Volkswagen was the outlier—the car company that was eschewing non-petroleum fuels and instead harnessing the power of supposedly cutting-edge clean diesel engines to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy requirements. Volkswagen’s line of TDI cars (Turbocharged Direct Injection) were darlings of automotive enthusiasts and journalists. In July 2015, Kelly Blue Book and other automotive journals reported that the Volkswagen Golf TDI had set a new fuel economy record, reaching 81.17 miles per gallon (mpg) and beating the 74.34 mpg Guinness World Record that was, until recently, held by a hybrid vehicle. The fact that many of VW’s TDI offerings retailed for around $20,000 was another reason for the hype. Since 2009, Volkswagen has sold more than 482,000 clean diesel cars containing a four-cylinder TDI engine. This included versions of the Passat, Jetta, Golf, Beetle, and Audi’s A3.
When it comes to fuel consumption, diesel’s efficiency over gasoline is nothing new (diesel is roughly 30 percent more fuel efficient than gasoline), and neither is the supposed rivalry between clean diesel and hybrid/electric vehicles. Going back to 2007, Popular Mechanics published a story entitled The Case for Diesel: Clean, Efficient, Fast Cars (Hybrids Beware!), which began:
Merging with northbound traffic on Interstate 75 just outside Auburn Hills, Mich., I punch the accelerator, quickly swing left into the passing lane and pull forcefully ahead of the cars around me. In any other ride, on any other gray morning, it’d be just another Interstate moment. But this rush hour, I’m behind the wheel of a preproduction 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, which is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-charged, direct-injected diesel engine that, even as I leave the speed limit in tatters, is averaging nearly 50 mpg. Equally important, what’s coming out of the tailpipe is no dirtier than the emissions from the 35-mpg econoboxes I can now see in my rearview mirror. Speed, fuel efficiency and minimal emissions? These aren’t characteristics usually associated with diesel-powered vehicles. But they will be.
This combination of diesel vehicle attributes—inexpensive, efficient, high performing, and (suddenly) as clean as gasoline or even hybrid vehicles—was celebrated and attributed to breakthroughs in engine technology.
This combination of diesel vehicle attributes—inexpensive, highly efficient, great driving performance, and (suddenly) as clean as gasoline or even hybrid vehicles—was celebrated, and attributed to both ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and breakthroughs in engine technology that improved combustion and reduced unwanted emissions of particulates and other pollutants. Even though efficient diesel vehicles are extremely common in Europe, where standards for emissions of pollutants like nitrous oxide are less stringent, VW was effectively the only company selling diesel light-duty vehicles in North America.
In testing environments, Volkswagen’s TDI vehicles were below U.S. requirements for nitrous oxides (NOx) emissions. But recent research from the International Council on Clean Transportation and West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions found that in real-world testing environments, VW’s diesel Passat exceeded EPA’s NOx emissions limits by a factor of 15 to 35 times, while the Jetta was in excess by a factor of 5 to 20 times. The company has now admitted that it used a “defeat device” to alter the vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU) in testing environments. The ECU manages the vehicle’s critical systems, altering of which can have a huge impact on performance, efficiency, and other parameters.
“[The device] senses whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation and barometric pressure.”
According to EPA, “[The device] senses whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation and barometric pressure,” the violation notice reads. “These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure,” and would enable the engine to emit less NOx during testing in ways that are not yet completely clear. Although VW’s cars are capable of operating within regulatory requirements, vehicle performance suffers. So, in real-world driving conditions, the cars would “switch” to normal mode, which caused the now-famous discrepancy.
Good on Efficiency, Bad on NOx
Ironically, the driving mode that the cars would revert to in real-world conditions not only created better driving performance but often offered improved fuel efficiency—two considerations that are both more noticeable and a higher priority to the driving public. According to Jalopnik, “The entire motive behind this cheat appears to be that Volkswagen wanted to give their customers better performance and greater mileage at a lower cost than you can’t apparently get without cheating or some kind of additive. That performance and economy is why publications like this one could laud diesel performance.”
The fact that Volkswagen’s diesel offerings stood as an outlier in the conflict between electric and hydrogen vehicles went beyond corporate boardrooms. In some ways, it has played out as part of a cultural battle for the future of the personal car.
That lauding, from Jalopnik and many sites like it, is important, because the fact that Volkswagen’s diesel offerings stood as an outlier in the conflict between electric and hydrogen vehicles went beyond corporate boardrooms. In some ways, it has played out as part of a cultural battle for the future of the personal vehicle—in which critics of hybrid, hydrogen and plug-in electric vehicles pointed to VW’s diesel offerings as a common-sense solution that environmentalists were ignoring for ideological reasons. It’s also worth noting that for many gearheads, NOx emissions isn’t an issue that resonates in terms of perception of a car’s performance and quality. The not-uncommon practice of “chipping” cars to alter performance while often increasing smog emissions is evidence of the lack of concern.
The prevalence of diesel cars in Europe is one of the major reasons that cities like Paris rival China’s urban areas for poor air quality.
So, if drivers don’t care about NOx, why should regulators? Nitrogen oxides are considered greenhouse gasses, but the bigger concern is how these volatile compounds behave in the atmosphere. NOx is one of the most powerful contributors to smog, and can have serious implications for human health, causing lung damage and cancer when inhaled, in addition to contributing to ground level ozone and urban haze. The prevalence of diesel cars in Europe is one of the major reasons that cities like Paris rival China’s urban areas for poor air quality.
As Cars Become Computers: Regulators Beware
Volkswagen, with its defeat device, is not an isolated incident in terms of automotive industry scandals. GM’s faulty ignition switches, Toyota’s runaway accelerators, Takata’s exploding airbag and Firestone’s flimsy tires are just the most recent of countless instances where automakers knew there was a problem with their product and didn’t take proactive measures to mitigate the damage. Volkswagen’s case is different because of the intentionality of its deception—rather than discovering that its product was faulty and covering it up after it was on the market, the company purposefully designed an algorithm that could cheat the system. It was also hypocritical in its public relations: The company actively criticized the U.S. government for “unfairly” supporting electric vehicle technology while pushing incentives for diesels, and published op-eds about how VW and Audi’s advanced diesel engines made diesel the clean fuel of the future.
The company actively criticized the U.S. government for “unfairly” supporting electric vehicle technology while pushing incentives for diesels.
In a potential sign that Volkswagen was unsure if its diesel gambit would pay off, the company announced a massive push towards electric vehicles in 2013, declaring that it would be the largest EV manufacturer by 2018. The company has set aside just 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion) to cover the cost of recalls and other efforts to limit the damage, trashing its profit forecast for the year in the process, and presumably undermining any planned investments in furthering its electric offerings.
But the biggest lesson from this scandal is that if the United States or any other country wants to manage vehicle emissions, testing needs to occur in the real world under a range of conditions. If a car company can program a vehicle to alter its ECU to limit smog emissions, can regulators be similarly fooled on other performance and safety measures? As cars become increasingly computerized, it’s probably safe to say VW’s behavior is the tip of the iceberg.