It has been almost two years since a group of scientists at West Virginia University noticed the diesel Jetta they were testing had a bit of a gas problem, and more than six months have passed since the cause was found and Volkswagen admitted publicly that they’d betrayed almost every single person on the planet. ‘Dieselgate’ was born.
In total, it was found that some 11 million diesel engined Volkswagen vehicles around the world were fitted with so called “defeat devices”. These devices contained a custom made, malicious piece of code which could sense when the vehicle was undergoing an emissions test and was able to switch the ECU across to a special ‘low emissions’ mode, which lowered the amount of emissions produced in order to meet regulations. However, once the vehicle returned to normal road operation and the device switched off, researchers discovered that the emissions produced went through the roof – exceeding the limits by a factor or 15 to 35 times.
We all know that emissions limits around the world are becoming increasingly strict, so much so that it costs automakers hundreds of millions of dollars each year to develop new engines and new technologies just to keep up – but these emissions limits are being tightened for the greater good of the environment and also the health of the human race as a whole. In order to meet these new standards, the way I see it Volkswagen had two options;
A) Develop new diesel engines which are specifically designed to meet these new emissions limits, or;
B) Retune their existing engines in order to meet the stricter limits, by sacrificing fuel economy, power, or a combination of both.
However, one or more people in Volkswagen’s engine R&D department found an ingenious third option, which in my opinion must have been something like:
C) Tune their current range of engines to the ultimate power/economy setting, don’t give a shit about the levels of deadly nitrogen oxides produced, find a way to trick every single country in the world into believing they’re eco-friendly, and then finally raise both middle fingers to pretty much everyone else on earth.
To state that Volkswagen’s actions were a gross violation of trust is an understatement. As you can guess, option C could never be anything other than a deliberate action to violate the law and fraudulently produce and sell cars to customers who thought they were buying vehicles that met mandated pollution standards. And it gets worse.
When the California Air Resources Board caught wind that something was up with Volkswagen’s emissions back in 2014, Volkswagen blamed the higher emissions on ‘various technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions,’ according to the EPA. The EPA also said, “Stonewalling continued until the agency threatened to withhold certification for the carmaker’s 2016 models. Only then did VW admit it had designed and installed a ‘defeat device’ that purposely lowered emissions while a vehicle was being inspected.” Michael Horn, the president and CEO of Volkswagen US, stated, “Our company was dishonest with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board, and with all of you… We totally screwed up.”
Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of Volkswagen, went one step further in a video to customers, employees and the general public, apologizing for the “terrible mistakes of a few people.” Except it was not a mistake. The Takata Airbag scandal, which dieselgate is often compared to, was a mistake. The issue stemmed from mishandling in the manufacture of explosive propellants and improperly stored chemicals used in the airbags themselves, which in turn meant that airbags could explode and potentially send shrapnel into the face and body of the front seat occupants. As bad as that sounds, nothing about the Takata scandal was intentional, as opposed to Volkswagen’s dieselgate, which without a doubt was.
If you look at both scandals from a different perspective – exploding Takata airbags have killed a total of 8 people, while a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Research Letters estimated that approximately 59 premature deaths will be caused by the excess pollution of defeat device equipped Volkswagens between 2008 and 2015 in the US. Those figures are for the US only where about 500,000 vehicles are affected, but according to motoring expert John Cadogan, if you extrapolate that data to take into consideration the other 10,500,000 defeat device equipped Volkswagens around the world, John suggests “that’s about 1400 people who are going to die early, as a result of Volkswagen’s criminal misconduct.”
Now at this stage there will be people who’ll chime in and say that dieselgate wasn’t really Volkswagen’s fault. After all, why would a company with more than 650,000 employees puts its own financial future in jeopardy by purposely cheating emissions laws? These same people will also say that the members of Volkswagen’s board had no idea what was happening right under their noses – and they could be right about that – but it still doesn’t clear the board members of any responsibility or blame. Instead, it makes them guilty of cultivating a culture within the organisation which allowed something like this to happen in the first place.
For an illegal defeat device to become a viable option, the board of Volkswagen must have put their drivetrain engineers under a hell of a lot of pressure to produce results. Perhaps the engineers weren’t given enough time or enough funding to produce engines which properly complied with the latest emissions regulations. But was the corporate culture at Volkswagen so bad that these same engineers were not able to request more time, or more money to do the job right? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time imagining that one or more engineers would take it upon themselves to create a defeat device on their own initiative, on behalf of (and unbeknownst to) a huge multinational company like Volkswagen. Even if it were true, these individuals still haven’t been named. I think Volkswagen’s decision to blame the entire dieselgate scandal on a few faceless men is taking the easy way out, and I just don’t buy it.
Another thing which I find difficult to fathom is that even if dieselgate was the work of a few rogue engineers, why wasn’t their great deception discovered when the vehicles were road tested? Volkswagen owns a 96km test track facility in Ehra-Lessien, Germany, which they built during the Cold War. Most notably, it features a straight which is approximately 8.7km (5.4mi) long, which although perfectly flat, is so long that you can’t actually see the other end due of it to the curvature of the earth. With such an amazing facility available, am I expected to believe that Volkswagen never sent their diesel-engined vehicles out for emissions road-test before they were put into mass-production? Once again, I just don’t buy that.
So how is Volkswagen going to fix these problem engines? Well, they’ll need to make them run richer by adding more fuel or reducing the amount of air going into the engine, either by applying a software patch or by fitting a restrictor into the air intake. Contrary to what Volkswagen has previously told customers, both fuel economy and the power output of the engines will definitely be affected – otherwise why did dieselgate happen in the first place? As far as I’m aware, Volkswagen hasn’t actually started applying these fixes to vehicles yet, although they are hoping to have the problem eradicated by the end of 2016. But you know what? I couldn’t care less.
Because unlike the mainstream media who have continued to heap praise Volkswagen vehicles in the wake of the dieselgate scandal, I’ll be damned if I’m going to support an automaker who effectively raised both of their middle fingers to the world. If you decide to provide financial support to Volkswagen by purchasing one of their vehicles, even the unaffected ones, you’re effectively saying “You betrayed me. But I forgive you. For everything.”
I’m afraid that when it comes to the dieselgate scandal I simply can’t buy into Volkswagen’s versions of events. And as a result, I won’t be buying their vehicles either.