VW diesel emissions scandal, are they the only ones to blame?

A lot has been written about the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal that’s been uncovered in the US. But not yet here on Left-Lane.com. That’s not because we’re secretly supporting VW and refuse to write anything bad about them. It’s because we refuse to just republish news stories that you can find elsewhere on the internet. Left-Lane aspires to offer its readers unique content that you will not find elsewhere. And since I (Bart) have been very busy with other obligations the past few weeks (as you may have noticed, while Krzysztof and Rutger have been very busy, I haven’t published any articles in 3,5 weeks), I haven’t had the time to sit down and contemplate our angle on this perhaps industry-changing matter. Quality goes before quantity, so I hope this article meets your expectations. If so, or if not, please post your comments below. Thanks!

Volkswagen-diesel-emission-scandalVolkswagen is facing serious trouble in the US and worldwide after admitting it had misled US regulators by installing “cheating software” designed to make sure the cars emit much less nitrous oxide (NOx) during the standard testing procedure than they actually do in real life. Besides facing a hefty fine of up to $18 billion (but probably much less than that maximum figure) VW can expect just in the US, the fallout from a marketing and image perspective is potentially many times worse if the company doesn’t act swiftly and firmly to restore confidence in the brand.

Let’s hope confidence in the automotive industry also remains intact, after Toyota’s unintended acceleration safety failure, GM’s faulty ignition switch scandal (see a trend here with companies trying to become the biggest in the world?) and the recent scandal with Takata airbags.

But is VW the only one to cheat in emission tests?

No matter how incredibly and unforgivably wrong Volkswagen has been in this matter, I refuse to believe they are the only manufacturer to manipulate its software or other parts of their vehicles in order to perform better in fuel efficiency or emission test procedures. They were simply the first ones to get caught and have therefore been made into the piñata of the automotive industry. What this whole scandal may have actually done is lay bare the issues with testing procedures that are too far off reality and which can be too easily manipulated. The big drop in share prices across all major automotive OEMs, though not as badly as the drop in VW shares, signals that investors also believe Volkswagen is not alone in this and the industry as a whole may face tough times ahead.

I’m not saying other manufacturers may be using the same software as VW, as it appears that this specific issue remains unique to Volkswagen, but testing cycle manipulation is an industry wide phenomenon that almost every manufacturer will be more or less guilty of in one way or the other, as I’ll explain later in this article.

Why it’s unlikely VW has used the same software in Europe

Diesel-exhaust-emissionsReuters has published a report stating that VW admitted that 8 million diesel vehicles in the EU were fitted with software capable of (emphasis mine) cheating emission tests, which many media interpreted that this has actually happened. However, I think those media have all (intentionally or not) missed the subtle distinction of the words capable of. I think it’s very unlikely they’ve actually used the same software that’s about to strangle the brand in the US.

Let’s first take a look at the differences between regulations: compared to their North American counterparts, regulators in Europe focus less on NOx emissions (which are claimed to contribute to smog) than on fuel efficiency and subsequently carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (which are claimed to contribute to climate change). NOx emissions can be reduced by having the ECU feed the engine with a richer fuel-air mixture, which would subsequently result in lower fuel economy. The software VW implemented into its diesel cars recognizes the circumstances in which an EPA emissions test is performed and then switches to a richer mixture, lowering the NOx emissions, but hurting fuel economy. As a result, many VW diesel owners in the US experienced better fuel efficiency in real life than the official EPA figures based on those test results, because the engine would run on a much leaner mixture in normal driving conditions.

volkswagen_Golf-diesel-emission-testIn Europe, the focus of emission testing is much less on NOx and more on CO2, which is directly related to fuel efficiency. Therefore, engines in European cars are likely to run leaner, improving fuel economy, while the trade-off of higher NOx emissions is of less importance to the European regulator. So the European governments that have been quick to ban sales of Volkswagen TDI engines and are falling over each other to point their pedantic finger at VW, shouldn’t be too worried about that the cars they’ve let onto their roads have the same malicious software as those in the US.

Why European governments have themselves to blame as well

Even though the matter requires a thorough investigation and even though Volkswagen’s contempt of the regulations deserves to be frowned upon, the EU governments should also be focused inward, as emission test manipulation isn’t strictly limited to North America. On the contrary, it may be even more prominent in Europe, because of 2 reasons: more emphasis on fuel economy in country-specific tax regulations, giving a higher incentive to cheat and secondly a flawed testing procedure, making it easier to cheat without getting caught. And that’s something the local governments control themselves.

NEDC-driving-cycleIn recent years, CO2 emissions have become increasingly more important in several European countries, with large differentials in the taxation of fuel efficient cars vs. gas guzzlers. In some countries, offering a model with CO2 emissions right at the limit of a certain tax bracket, while the competition emits just 1 g/km more (but just over the limit), can give that model an advantage of thousands of Euro’s in the purchase price, leading to huge differences in sales between direct competitors. To make matters worse, these high stakes are dependent on the fuel efficiency test run by the EU regulator, called New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), which is flawed to begin with, as the driving conditions required in the test are too far off real world driving. This gives manufacturers the opportunity to put ever more focus on “optimizing” their vehicles, powertrains and software to the specific driving cycle that is tested.

As a result of automakers having become more and more proficient in these optimizations, the difference between the “official” fuel economy figures and those achieved by an average driver in the real world has increased to as much as 40% in recent years, with BMW, Fiat and PSA among the manufacturers with the largest gaps between theory and practice. While technically this may not be called cheating as it happens within the limits of the law (and that’s where the problem lays), it still means customers are being misled.

VW-TDI-engineWhat makes matters worse, is that the tests are performed by the automakers themselves, under surveillance from independent testing organizations certified by national governments. These organizations are commercial businesses that are dependent on their customers: the automakers. As a result, they allow the automakers to optimize the tested vehicles by, for example, allowing the vehicle to run the test with the side mirrors folded or even completely removed, panel gaps taped off, increased tyre pressure and even the alternator disconnected, situations which would never occur on public roads.

Why the flawed testing procedure won’t be replaced anytime soon will be the subject of another article in the next few days.

After the press and public became aware of Volkswagen’s deceptive software, BMW was quick to point out that their X5 diesel passed the exact same test that uncovered Volkswagen’s cheating device. Surely, the way VW blatantly broke the rules doesn’t deserve any praise, but other brands better be careful not to boast too much about not cheating the emission tests, because they might be operating within the limits of the law, but public perception can change quickly about whether they operate within the limits of what’s ethically and morally accepted or not.

About Bart Demandt

Bart is a 34-year old Dutchman who's always had a thing for cars, the automotive industry and statistics. He’s combined these passions by writing about them on Left-Lane.com. His daily driver is an Alfa Romeo GT because he fell in love with the sound of the 3.2 V6 engine. And just like in a relationship with a woman, high maintenance costs sometimes bring him on the brink of a break-up, but true love will hopefully prevail.
You can find all his articles Here.

Comments

  1. Losange says:

    As regards to other failures in the industry, open-mindedness is needed to not get confused. Investigations led by NASA showed that Toyota couldn’t be blamed for unintended accelerations due to electronic malfunctions. In the same way Toyota, BMW, Honda and other carmakers depend on suppliers like Takata to give them good products.

    On a contrary, software developer Bosch has warned VW to not use their software in production cars, because it’s illegal. But they didn’t listen. That’s intentional fraud. So there is a difference between the specific failures.

    By the way, the sentence about brands trying to become the biggest in the world is weird concerning Toyota, because they’re already the biggest car company.

    The part about possible cheating by other brands is very suggestive and not a sign of good journalism for which you took your time. If you’re not able to show the evidence, a good journalist or someone writing about cars on the internet shouldn’t

    The German (!) government denies your black-and-white statement:

    “The German transport ministry has no evidence that any carmakers other than Volkswagen have manipulated emissions tests”

    “At this point we have no indication of other manufacturers being involved”

    Source: http://europe.autonews.com/article/20151002/ANE/151009953/berlin-says-no-signs-carmakers-other-than-vw-manipulated-tests

    • Bart Demandt says:

      Hi Losange,

      thanks for your reply.
      In regard to the Toyota failure vs. Volkswagen’s cheating: of course there’s a big difference between those two issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written above that it’s unforgivable that VW has knowingly broken the law and intentionally committed fraud. However, my point with that comment is that in the minds of consumers these kinds of negative publicity reflect badly on the entire industry, regardless of who’s at fault, or if anyone’s at fault at all. What sticks is how a company deals with the problem from a publicity point of view. Remember the Audi unintended acceleration case in the 1980’s? Even when it was proven they weren’t at fault, they should’ve said sorry, but instead they decided to place an “I told you so” ad (It actually said: Case closed). Toyota didn’t act quickly enough on the matter this time and that hurt both their brand’s image and the industry’s image.

      In response to your comment about trying to become the biggest in the world: General Motors has been the biggest car company in the world from 1931 until 2007. In 2002, Toyota set a goal to become the biggest car company by 2010. It managed to do so in 2008, but in its quest for volume, the company sacrificed quality. Even the chairman Akio Toyoda admitted that the company’s expansion “may have been too quick”. Sources (among others): http://www.economist.com/node/15581072 or for example http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/business/28toyota.html?_r=0

      And in response to your comment about being suggestive: The whole point of my article is that I cannot believe that Volkswagen is the only brand to manipulate emission tests, and I explain why I think so. I don’t need hard evidence, it’s just a feeling that I have, based on my knowledge of the industry and the facts mentioned in the article. This is a blog post, or a column as one could say. That means the post is opinionated, and reflects my thoughts about the industry, supported by facts as much as possible, in sharp contrast with those articles that just blindly use the Reuters article to print fat headlines that “8 million cars in Europe use cheating software!”.
      If the German authorities claim to have no evidence, that doesn’t mean that it’s not actually happening, they just haven’t figured out how it’s done. As you quote yourself: “At this point (which doesn’t rule out they may have in the future) we have no indication….” (which means they’re not 100% sure it’s not happening, otherwise they would say: “no other automakers are doing it”.)

      • Losange says:

        Hi Bart,

        Yes, Toyota put quantity over quality, but they didn’t cheat in becoming the biggest car company. A fundamental difference with VW, they clearly don’t invest enough in technology and innovation and are willing to cheat companywide to become the biggest car company in the world.

        I know you’re a blogger and not a journalist, but making statements that are 99% based on feelings and thoughts, just because you’re a follower of the industry, is a way of framing your readers and very misleading.

        Your argument about and comparison with fuel economy figures is inappropriate and in my opinion weak, because we all know that cars are tested under ideal circumstances. So in practice there will always be a difference in fuel economy. From hybrids to large SUV’s. Customers know this, governments know this, you and I know this. So it’s not intentional deception whereas VW intentionally misled customers and governments by using illegal software in production cars. Clearly a different situation.

        Furthermore I hope that you see you’re using your mistrust as argument against me quoting sources about the German government. Don’t you think this is, again, weak? In a way it’s unfair for the other car companies as well, because although for example Daimler, BMW, Renault, Honda and Toyota have denied manipulating and using illegal software, for me it looks like in your head they’re already guilty or at least suspects before there was any proof. Don’t you think this is at least weird that you’re belittling other sources, but for you, feelings and thoughts are enough to blatantly state that other companies probably do the same thing? Don’t you think the German government will do anything to take away the attention from VW concerning ‘Dieselgate’ by testing diesel cars from other companies? I know many mistakes are made in the industry, but for now VW is the only company that knowingly committed fraud.

        Having opinions is a good thing and I really enjoy reading articles on Left-Lane, but in my opinion you should be more careful with the way you approach these kinds of scandals.

  2. Bart Demandt says:

    Hi Losange,
    Thanks again for your reply.
    If I understand you correctly, your biggest issue with my article are that I’m making a statement without backing it with hard facts. But that’s exactly the whole point of the article. It’s not meant to be read as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s meant as an insight into an issue that concerns me and others in the industry. It’s meant to give my readers some food for thought, not to tell them exactly what to think.
    It’s also not about defending VW if that’s what you’re afraid of, nor is it about accusing other automakers of cheating in the same way that Volkswagen did. I’m saying they may be manipulating the EU fuel economy tests within the limits of the law, because that law is flawed. Therefore, my real critcism is of the NEDC cycle and the way it is conducted and verified (which it really isn’t).

    Yes, this site also offers a lot of data analysis, which means you may mistake us for a scientific source, but we also offer a lot of personal opinions and insights, which I believe sets us apart from those sites that merely republish a press statement. I hope that’s why you enjoy our articles. But I guess my intention with this article has not been made clear enough.

  3. Hi Bart,
    Thanks for an interesting article!
    Funny thing is that 3-4 years ago swedish technicians tested the vw 2,0 TDI and found out that it had up to 10 times as much NOx emission as 3 liter BMW and mercedes Benz engines! But no one took any notice at that time 😉 //Henrik

  4. Losange says:

    Bart,

    To be clear, I’m not accusing you of anything. I think it’s refreshing to read opinions on the internet about the automotive industry, but I don’t understand why you, and a lot of other media, are expanding the situation concerning Dieselgate by making comparisons with fuel economy, because it’s irrelevant.

    You wrote: “I’m saying they may be manipulating the EU fuel economy tests within the limits of the law, because that law is flawed.”

    For me as a reader it looks like you’re saying car companies are manipulative and misleading customers although they behave legally. To me that’s just weird. Why aren’t you saying that the companies are misleading their buyers as well by not making the most of the engines they use? In theory every engine has more power, more capacity in relation to the performance in practice.

    Governments give companies space, because as you know environmentally friendly legislation has to deal with a lot of lobbying within the industry. For instance, the BMW family gave the German government money so Merkel wouldn’t support strict EU-rules about CO2-emission for every single car company*. With regards to differences in fuel economy figures, you can accuse governments for this, but not the companies and definitely not call them manipulative, because they don’t do anything wrong.

    On a contrary, VW knowingly committed fraud by manipulating emission tests after putting illegal software in diesel cars. As I said before, software developer Bosch warned them to not use it in production cars. But they did, probably to become the world’s largest company. And now it backfired.

    Perhaps I didn’t get your point. I read the title and thought oh here we go again, another person who wants to blame others as well. To answer the question in your title, yes VW are the only ones to blame. In becoming the largest car company they refused to be innovative (introducing hybrids, EV’s took a long time) and since diesel is very important to them they used these engines to commit fraud. Winterkorn, his predecessors and other hot shots at Volkswagen Group are the ones to blame. Not Germany, not their government, not Merkel, not the emission tests, not anyone else.

    *http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/cdu-gets-donation-from-bmw-owners-during-co2-talks-a-927954.html

    • Bart Demandt says:

      Hi Losange,
      You’re actually 100% right about that last comment. VW is absolutely the only one to blame for this scandal and they should take full responsibility for it (and have done so).
      I haven’t made that point clear enough in the article.

  5. M. Hoffmann says:

    Hi,
    To understand the background of this scandal, you have to know, that it has some “historical” reasons.
    For many years VW – as the only car manufacturer on the planet – pushed the “pump jet”-Diesel technology.

    This technology had significant advantages regarding particle emissions and allowed VW offering Diesel cars, which complied very early with the Euro4-Standard. Significant tax credits for buyers for the cars allowed VW to take higher prices for these cars than the competitors with common rail – diesel engines and expand their market share.

    With Euro 5 on the horizon, they had to abandon the pump jet technology in 2005 , as it turned out, that the reduction of NOx-emissions of these engines would be much harder and costly than with common rail diesels.

    The EA 189 engine then was more or less a “quickshot” common rail diesel, somewhat hastily derived from the only available CR-diesel in the VAG group, a 6 cylinder engine developed at Audi. With that “emergency solution” VW “suddenly” lagged years behind their competitors, which were already continously developing and improving their 4cyl common rail diesels for many years.

    I guess, the top of the corporation was so accustomed to earn high margins and easily widen their market share with the pump jet diesel generation, that they put enormous pressure on the VW engineers to make it possible to continue this “success story”. I think this was the “climate” in which the “idea” of this fraud was born.

    Additionally, Piech, Winterkorn & Co. were such “performance freaks”, that they surely would have critisized blisteringly their engineers if they would have significantly limited the torque curve of the engines to avoid the areas of high NOx-emissions in the engine map at low rpm’s and higher loads to comply with the tougher NOx-regulations.

    You also have to know, that the inner corporate climate at VW is often freezing cold. Winterkorn was i.e. notorious for shouting employees down only for presenting him bad news. In a 2013 article the “Spiegel” described VW therefore as a “North Korea” to work in as a manager or engineer. ( many of them who know VW from inside found this satire video about the scandal quite apposite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKef1JFpiCA )

    Last but not least, the top managers ( and the owner families Piech & Porsche ) of VW were so attracted of the chance to become the worlds largest automaker, that they priorized this goal wherever they could, even with installing the EA 189 in cars for the US market for which it was absolutely inappropriate. Improving the very low market share in the US was seen as a key to achieve this goal. So they pushed their nearly exclusively offer of mainstream diesel sedans with the incriminated EA 189 engines in the US even with a massive “clean diesel” marketing campaign…

    All these years VW could be very sure that nobody could ever expose this fraud. No institute on the planet had technical equipment to check NOx-emissions of passenger cars on the road. This has been done with trucks and busses, but due to the limited space of a passenger car’s trunk this has not been possible in the past.

    This all led to this massive mess.

    For me the most ironic part of the story is, that the revealance of the fraud also originated from german soil.
    The ADAC ( german car owners club ) – aware that the european NEDC-test-cycle ist far from everyday driving reality – also began using the american WLTC cycle when measuring cars in its “Ecotest”, which is part of their car testings for consumer information.
    The ADAC shared these data with the ICCT, which analyzed and compared the data with its methodology.

    The ICCT found, that the TDI-Data were somehow “weird”. TDI-Cars, sold in Germany (!), were cleaner (!) when they were driven in the WLTC-cycle than driven in the NEDC-Cycle while all other cars showed up the expected result, that the more realistic WLTC-cycle with higher accelerations etc. resulted in higher NOx-emissions. Nearly all diesel cars sold in Europe would never match the US emission standards in their european configuration, except the EA 189-TDI’s.

    This “miracle” could only be unraveled by finding a way to do “on the road”-emission tests at last.
    So the American Section of the ICCT contacted the West Virginia University, which is known for routinely testing diesel busses and trucks. The $50.000 they offered as a budget for the development of such as “downsized” equipment was way to low, but the university engineers found other fiscal sources to realize the project…

    VW made a mistake: They installed the same software globally, so every EA 189 car in the world – no matter in which country – put on a dyno and beginning a drive that matches the WLTC cycle diagram, immediately “thinks” that it is on a CARB test rig in California or elsewhere in the US.
    But now it’s too late for to shout employees down for this…

    I’m quite sure, that this fraud ist VW-unique.

    The Chairman of the ACEA, Carlos Ghosn, has – in a letter to high EU-represantives last week – assured, that no other european manufacturer has also done such manipulations. I’m sure that he talked about this issue with each of his CEO-collegues before.
    Also Toyota and Honda have assured this. Nissan is surely included, Carlos Ghosn is CEO of Renault-Nissan, Nissan Diesels are equipped with Renault dCi-engines ( small Mercedes too ).

    • Bart Demandt says:

      Hi M. Hoffman,
      thanks for your comprehensive reply, and your interesting insight into the switch from pump-jet to Common Rail at Volkswagen. I remember those pump-jet diesels to be famous for their aggressive torque curve and turbo boost.
      And you know what? VW was right that nobody could ever detect the cheating software, because nobody still has. The EPA only found out when VW confessed to using this software under pressure from the EPA, who threatened to revoke the type approval of 2016 TDI models. Modern cars have millions of lines of code, so it’s virtually impossible for an agency to detect a few malignant lines.
      That’s also why other automakers can comfortably claim not to have used such software, and why the German government can say they have no evidence other automakers are using similar software. Simply because there’s almost no way of detecting it, unless an automaker confesses to it.
      Still, I agree with you that this specific fraud is VW-unique indeed. Other automakers may (or may not) use other ways of emission-test manipulation, but they probably stay within the limits given to them by the flawed procedures.

  6. M. Hoffmann says:

    “I remember those pump-jet diesels to be famous for their aggressive torque curve and turbo boost.”

    Yes, this is a crucial point of this strory. VW obviously feared negative reactions on the market , if they had configured the ECU of the EA 189 engine appliant with the standards resulting in a significant less powerful torque curve compared to its predecessor.

    And you’re right, that the EPA had no “direct” evidence for the malign code.
    For my knowledge the EPA even has no right and no means to read out and analyze the software of the ECU. They were only able to bring the existence of “malign” code to proof by checking out its effects.
    They permutated phases of the ‘original’ WLTC- testing cycle in new created longer testing cycles, until the ECU did no longer recognize the driving as a emission test and switched back to “normal road mode”, resulting in much higher NOx-emissions.

    Confronted with these data on September 3rd, the engineers of VW had no other choice to confess the existance of the fraud code in the ECU..

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