Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

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.