Volkswagen Caught Cheating—CA, EPA Asking For Vehicles To Be Recalled

, senior vehicles analyst | September 18, 2015, 4:35 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

Do you own a 2.0L diesel vehicle made by Volkswagen or Audi from 2009 or after? I’m sorry to inform you, but according to the EPA your car has been polluting the environment at a level between 10 and 40 times its legal limit. Volkswagen and Audi, who manufacture the majority of diesel vehicles in the United States, have been cheating emissions tests instead of complying with more stringent smog-forming pollution standards.

Why this is a big deal

In 2007, EPA reduced the upper limit of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions as part of its Tier 2 emissions program to address air pollution from passenger vehicles. Coincident with this, Volkswagen suspended sales of its diesel passenger vehicles, which could not comply with these standards that now forced diesel vehicles to be just as clean as their gasoline counterparts.

By 2009, however, the turbodiesels were reintroduced by Volkswagen—apparently under false pretenses. Volkswagen (under vehicles sold under both the VW and Audi brands) implemented software in the emissions controls package that only fully turned the emissions control systems on when the car was being smog-tested. This allowed it to pass emissions tests—but during normal driving conditions the vehicles continued to emit smog-forming pollutants at pre-Tier II levels, which were 10-40 times higher than required by law.

Roughly speaking, this means that even though diesel vehicles made up just less than 1% of vehicles sold last year, they could be emitting as much as 10-25% of all NOx emissions from 2014 passenger vehicles on-road.

A disillusioned VW Bug sheds a tear upon hearing that its manufacturer showed such disregard for the environment. (Photo courtesy of David Preston)

A disillusioned VW Bug sheds a tear upon hearing that its manufacturer showed such disregard for the environment. (Photo courtesy of David Preston)

This is exactly what the Tier 2 (and Tier 3) standards for which UCS has fought so hard was designed to protect against. Passenger vehicles should be held to the same standards, regardless of how they are fueled. It is critical that both the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board take swift action to protect our environment, and they are: nearly 500,000 VW/Audi vehicles are now being recalled under the Clean Air Act to address this issue. Civil penalties could amount to as much as $18 billion in fines, as well as additional costs incurred as a result of fixing the issue.

What does this mean for diesel?

Volkswagen chose to game the system instead of complying, but not because they were forced. Diesel cars are capable of meeting stringent emissions standards—as a report from the International Council on Clean Transportation that played a significant role in uncovering this incident showed, real-world clean diesels do exist. While their high fuel economy does not directly translate into low global warming emissions, diesel can play a role in reducing global warming emissions without adversely impacting smog-forming pollution. What is critical, however, is that we continue to test and retest in conditions that most accurately represent how the vehicle is being driven in the real world to ensure that emissions standards are being met and environmental benefits truly achieved.

I’m personally exceptionally disappointed to see today a repeat of some of some of the gamesmanship we saw in the nineties with heavy-duty trucks—in my naïveté, I thought everyone agreed that cleaner air is a good thing. It seems like the “people’s car” might need to work a little bit harder in the future to make sure what it’s doing is good for the people and not just the bottomline.

Concerned your vehicle is one of the ones that might be emitting more pollution than you wanted? These are the affected vehicles that will be recalled: 2009-2015 VW Beetle 2.0L TDI; 2009-2015 VW Golf 2.0L TDI; 2009-2015 VW Jetta 2.0L TDI; 2009-2015 Audi A3 2.0L TDI; and 2014-2015 VW Passat 2.0L TDI.  If you own one of these vehicles, you should expect to hear from VW as part of the recall process, and it is VW’s responsibility to remedy this issue as soon as is feasible.

Posted in: Vehicles Tags: , , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • The picture emerging is of an engineering group stuck between the new anti-diesel nox limits demanded by California’s CARB, numbers that were half the limits required in the EU, and VW’s management, which concluded that the value priced, low end, 4 cylinder E189 engined cars couldn’t absorb the additional cost of the AdBlue / urea injection system and remain economically viable. Faced with two immovable forces, the emissions group apparently did what they thought had to be done — embrace their employer and screw California. Hopefully the extreme greens will see reason and encourage an adblue retrofit, a small fine, and try to move forward from the debacle that is at least partially the fault of California’s CARB overreach and unreasonable, capricious, and arbitrary emission “standards”. Unreasonable actions tend to breed more unreasonable actions. We need a better, national, and standardized means to set limits and measure emissions. The problem would have been caught much sooner, probably prevented entirely, with more reasonable people managing CARB.

    • neroden

      Fraud is never OK.

      A lot of people bought these cars because VW claimed they were clean… when they weren’t. VW owes everyone a full refund.

    • Volkswagen broke _federal_ emissions standards.

  • Christine Mifsud Benjamin

    It is possible that VW realized it is not easy to meet CA’s emission standards because they are crazy. I know with being a O/O for a truck that the majority of the trucks that are CA compliant you spend all kinds of money taking them to a Cummins, KW, or Volvo, or whatever dealer your truck happens to be & it costs thousands of dollars to maintain just to be able to run CA & most of the time the truck is still not right. The EPA does not know what it is doing with diesel engines. They came out with these CARB regulations too soon & without proper testing before the manufactures had time to make sure people would be able to afford to comply & now they expect everyone to just fall in line & take it on the chin & we are paying through the nose. And now once again they want to up the regulations in 2017. From what I understand the truck manufactures don’t even know how they can even come close to meeting the new regulations. Do people that understand these diesel engines like engineers even work at the EPA & understand real world conditions? And sure we can talk about criminal offenses & what not for some of these manufactures, but what about the actual EPA. Diesel engines have come a long way from when they were mechanical to the newer electronic engines. Now we are making them burn their own exhaust which they were never designed to do. Do you think these manufactures might have a learning curve on that?? Look how long it takes for a government study to build a bridge, but yet when they put out a mandate on emissions they give the manufacturer 2 years. Does that seem like it makes sense? And yes if you purchase a vehicle & especially a truck you are involved in this mess & believe me many people are & these problems are passed along to the consumer so just think about it.

    • Manufacturers had significantly longer than two years for implementation of criteria pollution standards for heavy-duty vehicles. That does not mean there were not hiccups in the process, but much of that was because the manufacturers chose to expend efforts gaming the system instead of engineering solutions.

      However, as a result of those emissions programs, carcinogenic PM emissions are down 70% in California, despite increasing diesel miles. NOx emissions are down as well, though there remain issues in the most congested areas of CA.

      As for light-duty vehicles, Mercedes and BMW were able to engineer solutions just fine. In fact, VW even had the solution — their larger diesel engine meets the standards because they went with a more complex emissions control strategy instead of just trying to get away with a simple NOx trap.

      This penalty is a result of VW choosing expediency over the environment, plain and simple. And they will be held to pay for that mistake, to the tune of up to $18 billion.

      • Christine Mifsud Benjamin

        Dave what do you drive? Yes they had more than 2 years, but not from the difference from DPF to DEF. There is a much bigger difference in the technology?

      • The laws that VW broke were finalized in 2000.

    • Bill Bugbee

      Diesel engines, like coal-fired power plants, are a hold over from the last century and should be retired ASAP. Beyond the health costs and impacts to the public and planet, both dirty fuels are obsolete and alternative zero emissions replacements for both propulsion and power are available. If you think otherwise you’re living in the past.

      It’s also easy to take shots at the EPA without a foundation based on the facts. The agency continues to operate in the public interest, protecting the public health, and the environment, which more than you can say about VW.

      EPA is attacked by polluters from the outside, and their paid political operatives serving in Congress. Their budget and funding is under constant attack, and it’s a wonder they accomplish as much as they do considering the operating, financial, and political obstacles the agency encounters.

    • neroden

      It’s really straightforward to meet the emissions standards, it’s just expensive. The other auto manufacturers are doing it. Train locomotive manufacturers are doing it. Off-road equipment manufacturers are doing it. The big power plants did it long ago.

  • brantc

    Awesome!!! Go VW!!!

    • neroden

      Big fan of fraud, are you?

  • New study Harvard “Particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold…..”

    New research such as above is finding increasingly alarming mental & physical health impacts of long term exposure to relatively low levels of air pollution. Long term I would dare to suggest the world needs to transition away from the pure internal combustion engine with Diesel the first to go.

    Plug in gas hybrids will provide a bridge for many to 100% battery electric until BEV range increases to what people perceive they need. Forget hydrogen as it takes 3X the energy to drive the same district as a battery electric car. Unless of course there is a massive breakthrough in low energy / carbon renewable hydrogen generation.

    Power generation needs to be decarbonised anyway to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

    • wifather2000

      I am 59, I knew this is 4th grade. We fuel our vehicles with toxic waste and build our roads with the same. The poison is everywhere !

    • neroden

      The evidence is that if there is a safe threshold for particulates (there might be), it’s below the levels which we can measure (the lowest level we can reliably measure is actually pretty high).

  • Ron Myers

    This seems to be the way that auto industry complies with emissions standards. I think it stems from EPA trusting companies test results (autos, industries, etc.) and seldom performing independent testing beyond ceritifation requirements like industries do to check the quality of components used in their products. This is almost like returning to the late 1990’s where initially EPA and the Justice department cited Honda, Ford and GM for emissions controls that only worked during certification. Later, the manufacturers of trucks (Caterpillar, Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Mack, Navistar, Renault and Volvo) did this up to about 2000 until the European Union revealed the high emissions. One might think that since this was prosecuted before, repeating the actions of other auto companies would make this a criminal offense rather than a simple slap on the wrist. For the earlier announcement of the previous violations see Department of Justice announcement dated Oct 1998…/opa/pr/1998/October/499_enr.htm

    • The nineties parallel is spot-on, which is why I linked to the truck case at the end of my post: The brazen disregard for the law is really what makes this latest news so astonishing. I hadn’t appreciated that passenger vehicle manufacturers had some similar violations, so thanks for bringing that to my attention.

      • essexhophead

        John Deere was not part of the heavy diesel consent decree. They didn’t cheat. Shame on VW for trying to beat the system. The fines they pay will be utilized to fund other environmental cleanup projects.

    • Gkiter

      Exactly, just like the FDA trusts vaccines manufacturer’s own studies to determine they are safe, just like the USDA trusts food additives manufacturer to determine they are safe, just like the EPA trusted Monsanto to determine that Roundup was safe. At the end the truths always comes to bite everybody in the behind but then the damages are done and CEOs got rich. This happens because in the US something is considered safe until proven unsafe, this is upside down science.

  • Ross Banick

    The article explained that VW temporarily enabled the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system when the car was being tested for emissions, which lowers combustion temperatures, and hence, nitrogen oxide emissions.

    However, the article did not explain how the car KNEW it was being tested for emissions.

    How did the car KNOW that it was being tested for emissions?

    • Bill Bugbee

      Take your question to the New York Times which originally reported VW’s crime.

      There is a diagnostic plug port under the dash all modern cars. Vehicle emissions testing in most states involves plugging into the port for data purposes as a part of the test, and that is one of several enabling possibilities that could signal a change in the operating state of vehicle and trigger the off-to-on emissions system operating state. Remove the plug, and its back to an off state.

      • Ross Banick

        While I’m aware that states, such as California, are planning a transition away from tailpipe-emissions tests to OBD emissions tests, that transition has barely even begun, so, that can’t be the method that was used.

        Most emissions tests, particularly in California, are run with the car’s drive wheels on a dynomometer following a prescribed set of well-known sequences meant to mimic the11-mile Los Angeles Test Procedure of the 1970s vintage, currently known as the Federal Test Procedure.

        However, each test sequence is different for each state, so, my “guess” is that VW researched each state’s requirement, and then programmed each and very one into it’s ECU; but that requires a rather elaborate ruse to successfully hide.

        Therefore, I ask, how did VW actually determine that any one particular state’s emissions test procedure was initiated?

    • To quote from EPA’s report: “The ‘switch’ sense 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. These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure used for emission testing for EPA certification purposes.” It’s entirely related to dyno testing. The software had two calibrations for the emissions control system (either SCR or LNT), “road” and “dyno”.

  • Bill Bugbee

    VW has committed a criminal and civil breach of the law and should be held fully accountable to law. A large fine is not sufficient. The company conspired to break the law, and conceal its crimes, while placing the public health at risk.

    Dirty diesels should be removed Americas roads now. Because Germans can’t build a decent EV, they instead push so-called clean diesel vehicles, brand them as green, and nothing is green about old and new diesel vehicle pollution and emissions.

    VW, BMW, Mercedes have all replaced the traditional black tailpipe exhaust of diesel fuel with less visible fine particulate pollution that now passes through the protective human lung barrier, enters the blood stream, compromises the immune system, and is most definitively carcinogenic. Before Obama leaves office the EPA, Justice, and Commerce should together go after VW with the full force of the law and make them pay for their crime.