After VW recall, EPA will now test all diesel cars to find cheaters

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After VW recall, EPA will now test all diesel cars to find cheaters
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So far we know that VW has duped regulators by installing programming on the emission control systems of its ‘clean diesel’ or TDI range of engines that reports inaccurate information. That means that when emissions testing equipment is plugged into the car, the system activates all the installed emission controls so the testing equipment will report numbers that fall within the EPA and CARB’s (California Air Resources Board) requirements. Once that testing equipment is unplugged, some of the emissions controls are shut down and the cars then emit 10 to 40 times the allowable pollutants. Specifically, those pollutants are NOx or nitrogen oxides.

We also know that this situation is not the result of a defect but is the result of deceit.

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The timeline of events

Autoblog.com reports that in May 2014, researchers at West Virginia University working in conjunction with the International Council on Clean Transportation found that the emissions from the 2012 VW Jetta TDI and 2013 VW Passat TDI were significantly higher while in use. They alerted the EPA of their results.

In December 2014, Volkswagen agrees to recall almost 500,000 cars to update the emission control software, which they said would make the cars compliant.

In May 2015, CARB (which had been alerted to the findings) runs tests to see if the fix worked and finds that NOx emissions are significantly higher than they should be.

In July 2015, CARB shared the results in with the EPA and Volkswagen. Volkswagen then discloses that the vehicles have a second calibration that runs only while being emission tested.

On Sept. 3, 2015, Volkswagen admitted to the EPA and CARB that the car’s systems were designed to ‘bypass, defeat and render inoperative elements of the vehicle emissions control systems.’

On September 18, 2015 the EPA issued a notice of violation.

On September 20, 2015 the recall was announced.

How they deceived the regulators

According to Consumer Reports, it appears that VW was able to deceive regulatory agencies and emission testing authorities by exploiting how testing actually takes place. When emission testing is done, it’s accomplished by using a dynamometer in which the drive wheels spin on rollers while the non-powered wheels stay stationary.

Because this type of situation in normal driving would be impossible or signify that there was an out-of-control situation, the data recorded by the traction control system can be used to dupe the testers. This is accomplished by using this scenario to determine which parts of the emission control system are active.

When this testing takes place and this situation is active, all emission controls are activated. Because no one is at the wheel, the power or other engine issues aren’t noticed. Once the car is restarted after the test, all wheels are moving again on the road and the system reverts to a state where only some of the emission controls are working.

What models are included in the recall?

Though just under 500,000 Volkswagens and Audis sold in the US are included in the initial claims, Volkswagen now admits that close to 11 million cars worldwide have this defeat system installed on them.

The initial car models include the Jetta, Golf, Beetle, Passat and the Audi A3, but more models are possibly affected. All of the vehicles in question are equipped with the TDI (turbocharged diesel) engines.

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Who was involved?

So far, we don’t know who was responsible for the practice that was used to deceive regulators but Jalopnik.com reports that CEO Martin Winterkorn is out and will be replaced by Matthias Mueller who is the current CEO of Porsche.  This is currently unconfirmed, but it’s highly unlikely that Winterkorn can survive this scandal.

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What does this mean to current owners?

Right now, we are not too sure how this will affect the current owners of diesel Volkswagens. But, clearly this is going to change the dynamics of the vehicles they own because, while it’s clear that these cars are capable of meeting low emissions standards, there’s a reason that Volkswagen decided to cheat the system. That reason is most likely tied to driveability and fuel mileage. Current thinking has the following happening:

  • The cars will be recalled and the emission systems software will be replaced with software that does not allow for defeat.
  • The cars will likely loose a good deal of efficiency and that will result in significantly lower miles per gallon.
  • The horsepower the engine produces will likely be reduced so the cars will accelerate slower.

Over the years, members of the automotive press have tested numerous examples of diesel Volkswagens and almost all have reported getting much better fuel mileage than the EPA has estimated. In the case of gasoline engines, this almost never happens. So, why does it happen with Volkswagen diesel-powered cars?

It’s likely that the cars were on dynamometers while being tested by the EPA and that, as explained above, caused the emission controls to be fully functional thus reducing the miles per gallon during testing. While the EPA had estimated the 2.0 liter TDI engine to get 42 mpg on the highway, many reviews have rated the cars at 50 mpg or more. That means that if the defeat is removed, owners will notice their mileage will likely be reduced by a significant margin.

Because emission controls tend to restrict engines, not only will the fuel mileage be reduced, the horsepower that the engines generate will be reduced as well. That means that acceleration will be more sluggish and driveability may be compromised as well. Neither of these two issues will likely sit well with owners.

Henry Hampton of Meriden, Conn., owns a 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI and purchased the car because of the driving he does. According to Hampton, loss of mileage would be “a problem” and he feels deceived and “expects some sort of recompense from VW.” At this point, he does not feel that he’d rush out to buy another Volkswagen and, that’s a problem because his previous two cars were a Volkswagen and its corporate cousin, an Audi. 

Ana Pinzon of Lawrenceville, Georgia says she does not like the idea that her car her pollutes more than it should. Here’s what she had to say:

“Volkswagen told me they were selling me a clean diesel car and that’s what I expect. And, if they can’t make my car do that, I want my money back.”

This situation is still unfolding and what effect it has on Volkswagen or even on the diesel engine market in the US remains to be seen.

Read more: Plugless charging: The wave of the future?

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