What We Need from Volkswagen, EPA, and California to Make Things Right

, senior vehicles analyst | March 21, 2016, 5:51 pm EDT
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This Thursday, Volkswagen will be laying its cards on the table as to the severity of its diesel pollution problem and a path forward. It is required to present to a U.S. district court: 1) whether or not these vehicles can be fixed, 2) a definitive answer as to whether or not the EPA and Volkswagen have agreed on a remediation process for these vehicles; and 3) a timeline for this process. Because these vehicles also violated California’s own Low-Emission Vehicle program (LEV), any plan for remediation will also involve the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

As noted previously, the diesel vehicles that Volkswagen sold represent not just a black eye for the auto industry, but an environmental tragedy that must be remedied. Since I last posted on this subject, there has been a lot of news on the issue on how this could be resolved—while we will learn more on March 24th, I think it’s important that we lay out some of the issues surrounding this situation now six months on.

VW might not be able to fix all vehicles…

When this scandal broke, it was clear that it might not be possible for VW to remedy all vehicles—after all, if they could have done this easily, why bother exposing the company to as much as $18 billion in penalties by cheating?

The first “clean diesel” car that VW sold in the U.S. was the 2009 Jetta; it used exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) to reduce smog-forming pollution during combustion along with a lean NOx trap (LNT) that adsorbs pollution from the exhaust, similar to the catalytic converter on a gas-powered car. This engine and emissions control system was later used in the Beetle, Golf, and Audi A3.

When VW adapted this engine for use in the Passat in 2012, engineers added selective catalytic reduction (SCR), which uses a chemical reaction between the exhaust and a liquid catalyst (typically urea) to reduce smog-forming pollution. In 2015, they then introduced an entirely new diesel engine platform that also used a combination of SCR and EGR, but with improved efficiency.

When the 2009 diesels came out on the road, their competitors wondered how VW could manage to meet emissions standards with just the EGR system to reduce smog-forming emissions. Now we know that the answer is that they couldn’t. These “first gen” vehicles would almost certainly require an added SCR system to meet the standards they were originally certified to, requiring hardware upgrades and modifications that may not be possible given the compact size of these vehicles. While it is much more likely that the second and third generation of vehicles which already have SCR could meet certification with modifications, to-date VW has not been able to prove that it is possible.

…but they may allowed to be left on the road anyway

From an environmental perspective, one of the most alarming things that has come to light recently is a statement at a California hearing by Todd Sax , chief of the California Air Resources Board enforcement division: “Our goal has been to fix these vehicles….Unfortunately, this may not be possible.  We will have to decide what the best approach is to dealing with these vehicles, and one of the options potentially would be to accept something less than a full fix.” (emphasis added)

Given the environmental damage these vehicles have done already and the continued damage that would be caused by allowing them to remain on the road, this is a concerning statement and it raises the question as to what should be done with any vehicles that cannot meet the standards to which they were originally certified. Forcing VW to buy back any vehicles that could not be fully fixed would not just eliminate future environmental risks, but it would also compensate consumers who were deceived by VW and have seen the resale value of these vehicles plummet. However, should EPA and/or CARB allow these vehicles to remain on the road, VW must be forced to offset the continuing damages.

The Volkswagen e-Golf is a lot more environmentally friendly than its diesel counterpart, but selling a few more of them won’t undo the environmental damage that Dieselgate has caused.

The Volkswagen e-Golf is a lot more environmentally friendly than its diesel counterpart, but selling a few more of them won’t undo the environmental damage that “dieselgate” has caused.

Volkswagen could be “forced” to sell electric vehicles

Last month, a story broke that suggested EPA was going to force Volkswagen to produce electric vehicles at its Chattanooga plant as part of the settlement around “dieselgate.” Electric vehicles are a more environmentally friendly option than diesel, both in terms of global warming emissions and criteria pollution, and we are certainly in favor of increasing production of EVs as part of a sustainable transportation system.

However, it seems odd to include such a push as part of this settlement. CARB already requires that a certain fraction of Volkswagen’s sales must be electric as part of its Zero Emission Vehicle program, along with 9 other states who’ve adopted the program—therefore, Volkswagen will already be selling more EVs!

They’ve also already committed to spending millions on EV infrastructure. Moreover, with EVs expected to be a growing part of the fleet mix, any such “penalty” would simply be requiring VW to do what it’s already planning on doing—investing in technology to move it forward in the industry. This is not an appropriate trade-off to reduce penalties for environmental violations.

A better solution is about fixing the environment, not padding VW’s bottom line

If these diesel vehicles are here to stay, it is more important than ever that VW remedy the health of the public affected by these dirty vehicles. For that reason, EPA and CARB should be specifically targeting projects that would lead to the biggest smog reductions for the communities most impacted by the harmful effects of smog. Heavy-duty trucks emit more smog-forming pollution per mile than light-duty vehicles and remain on the road longer, which can make cleaning up this sector more difficult. Rather than focusing on cars, EPA and CARB may choose to focus on trucks.

Between 2003 and 2010, smog-forming emissions from a new heavy-duty diesel engine were reduced by 95 percent. However, the lifetime of heavy-duty trucks can be measured in decades, which means that vehicles manufactured well before 2010 continue to remain on the road, belching particulates and smog-forming NOx which poses health risks for the surrounding communities.

As part of any settlement, the EPA has the authority to set up a Supplemental Environmental Project, which would be funded by Volkswagen and can then be used for any remedial project. One strategy could be to set up a fund similar to the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act, which could accelerate fleet turnover and reduce emissions by retrofits or replacements. A portion of this fund could even be set aside for zero emission trucks, which are critical to reducing the impact of freight in densely trafficked areas such as ports and inner cities. Another area of critical importance could be to reduce the emissions from school buses, since children represent a particularly vulnerable population.

Volkswagen must be held accountable for its deception

Whatever we learn on Thursday, it is of the utmost importance that VW pay for its deception and remedy the damages of this corporate malfeasance. It is the role of the EPA and CARB to protect human health and the environment—a slap on the wrist and a nudge towards electrification is neither a suitable punishment nor remedy for the magnitude of this scandal. I look forward to seeing how Volkswagen, EPA, and CARB plan to make things right, and I hope above all that the settlement fits the magnitude of the crime, for the sake of the public and the environment.

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  • JRT256

    I have to wonder about this. These vehicles have software for the engine control system that will pass the smog certification test. Is there some reason that they can’t use this software to drive on the road? If there isn’t, wouldn’t running in the “test” mode all the time fix them?

    • When this scandal originally broke six months ago, VW claimed that it was just a software issue and tried to show with a software update that the vehicles could meet the standards, but this was proven not to be true.

      While we do not know the full details of how the cheat devices work, it appears that the vehicles cannot run in the “test” mode for a sustained period of time:

      In the case of the older vehicles (and possible also the newer vehicles), part of the “cheat” was likely to reduce fuel flow because they knew exactly what power/fuel they would need for the vehicle to complete the emissions test procedure. Similarly, the regen process for the LNT was done in a way that worked only for the calibrated test, not in a way that could be accomplished over more varied real world behavior. And with the EGR, it is likely that it was running more EGR, which would help emissions but hinder performance. If you tried running a vehicle with this calibration on the road, it would suffer significantly in terms of driveability and therefore not really be considered a “fix” for their customers.

      For the vehicles with SCR, the test mode also uses a significantly higher fraction of the liquid catalyst; however, it may be possible that as part of a fix for these vehicles that it would just need to be replaced more often.

      Without knowing the full details, it’s difficult to know the full extent of the impacts on the performance of the car that this would have, but it seems that it is significant enough that they do not consider it an option to run in the calibration mode. It is also not necessarily true that this calibration would result in lower emissions for real world driving that did not mimic the known test procedure.

  • sandiegoskip

    Dave – way to beat the drum! The one bit of data that I’ve not seen is a comparison to these dirty diesels compared to mid-sized trucks (gas or diesel) in terms of NOx output per mile. Can you tell us how much NOx a Ford 350 Pick-up truck emits for example? The hyperbole over the VW problem far exceeds the facts – facts that both the EPA and the CARB allow these heavy trucks to emit far more (as in six times more) NOx, Hydrocarbons and CO2 than a wayward VW TDi that emits 40 times the legal limit…. Why? Because GM, Ford and Chrysler employ lots of Americans – so we reward them with the permission to build huge emissions producing trucks, vans and SUVs… So for all of you folks with respiratory problems, send a note to your congressman asking why the EPA and the CARB (now 14 states) allows these vehicles to be produced and sold (and they sell hundreds of times more units that VW does TDIs).

    • A diesel F-350 is certified to emit less than 0.4 g/mi NOx — this is 8 times higher than the light-duty passenger vehicle standard because it is designed to be a work truck. However, this is still 2 to 3 times better than any of the VW diesel passenger cars. Also, in the year preceding the scandal, VW sold more than 90,000 TDIs in the U.S.; in roughly that same period, Ford sold 260,000 super-duty diesel pick-ups – that’s a far cry from “hundreds of times more units”.

      This has nothing to do with where the cars and trucks are produced and everything to do with the intended use of the vehicle. After all, the diesel version of the Colorado Canyon pick-up is required to meet the same standard as any Volkswagen passenger vehicle. The standards are fuel neutral (gas and diesel must meet the same) and the same for all light-duty vehicles, regardless of size.

  • mph66

    “Forcing VW to buy back any vehicles that could not be fully fixed would not just eliminate future environmental risks, but it would also compensate consumers who were deceived by VW and have seen the resale value of these vehicles plummet.”

    Thank you for writing these words. As a consumer and an environmentally-concerned consumer at that, I researched vehicles for a few months before deciding to go with the 2014 Jetta Sportwagen, TDI. It was a toss up between the Toyota Prius and Volkswagen’s TDI engine. Having test-driven both, I was attracted to the power of the VW TDI engine versus the anemic hybrid engine in the Prius. I’d be commuting 75 miles per-day, round trip and every now and then, things can get hairy. The control of a manual shift and the power of the diesel engine meant that I’d be able to get out of some tight situations (being cut off). Seeing that both vehicles were supposedly “clean” engines, it was a no-brainer: VW TDI all the way. Well, now I’m stuck with a vehicle that is polluting the environment, has plummeted in resale value, and is stuck to me like gooey, nasty tar. I’ve been to Volkswagen here in RI and even with “incentives” they won’t buy it back for what it’s really worth. The consumer’s only hope is that VW is forced to buy back all these vehicles.

    Side note: I was the owner of a 1998 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. It was recalled along with hundreds of thousands of others due to a “frame rot” issue. At that time, Toyota bought back my 11-year old vehicle for 150% of Kelly Blue book value, rating it “excellent” condition no matter the condition. They gave me $9000 for that truck. They did it right. They took responsibility, made things right for the consumer. VW would do well to learn a lesson from Toyota’s example.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. Friends of mine own these cars and feel the same sense of deception and disappointment, regretful that this car which they love to drive isn’t the “clean” choice they thought it was. The $1000 goodwill gesture was nowhere near enough to compensate their customers, and it did nothing to ensure that the vehicles were either fixed or removed from the road—any proposed solution must do much better.

  • solodoctor

    Although I am a resident of California, I was not aware of the details of the discussions going on between Volkswagen and the EPA/CARB. Thanks for summarizing these issues this thoroughly.

    Two members of my family struggle with respiratory problems. What for others is a mild cold or the flu for them often becomes a much more serious and prolonged bout of problematic symtpoms requiring a lot of medical interventions as well as time away from work or school. Thus, I endorse the notion that VW must both be held accountable for its malfeasance and for implementing solutions which improve public health.

    I look forward to reading a follow up report after Thursday’s hearing. I stand ready as a concerned citizen and UCS member to communicate with the EPA, CARB, and/or those elected officials whose job it is to oversee and ensure that these two agencies serve the public rather than VW. Please do not hesitate to call on UCS’s members to step up and engage with these important issues.