This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

When John German (B.S. ’75), a senior fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation, hired researchers from West Virginia University to run some tests in the real world on Volkswagen’s diesel cars, he hoped to get additional data points that would help improve diesel emissions in Europe.  The United States has the world’s most stringent emissions standards, and VW’s diesel cars had always passed them. That’s why, at first, German thought the results he got were a mistake.

“I thought there was something wrong with the vehicle, that it was literally malfunctioning,” he says. “The contractors thought there was something wrong with their equipment, so they kept recalibrating and coming up with the same results.”

But the results weren’t caused by a malfunctioning car or faulty equipment. The surprising test outcomes were caused by software VW had secretly installed in its diesel vehicles beginning in 2009. When the software—known as a “defeat device”—detected testing conditions, the cars produced lower emissions that enabled them to pass the test in the laboratory. The rest of the time, the cars gushed pollutants into the air, as much as 40 times the permitted limit.

“Instead, VW lied to them and tried to get away with the defeat device, ” he continues, “which I just find completely incomprehensible.”

Coming Clean

Since the company conceded the cheat last fall, 450 investigators have combed through 1,500 Volkswagen laptops, encountering dozens of code words employees used to cloak their actions. The investigators waded through more than 100 terabytes of data—approximately 40 times as much material as was leaked in the Panama Papers—trying to figure out how VW had pulled its deception off.

In July, VW reached a settlement with the Department of Justice and the State of California Air Resources Board for violating some, but not all, of the provisions of the Clean Air Act. (The fines for these extant provisions have not yet been determined.) VW also settled with the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising. Together, these agreements require VW to pay a restitutive $10.03 billion to affected consumers, to put $2.7 billion in an environmental remediation fund, and to invest $2 billion into zero-emissions infrastructure and technology—a total fine of almost $15 billion that far exceeds any previous automaker settlement.

On top of the federal settlement, VW has also settled with 44 states for $603 million, but the civil and criminal charges have not yet been heard in court. The automaker’s saga is far from resolved, as are the questions the scandal has raised, including one that particularly interests German: Is Volkswagen the only diesel manufacturer using a defeat device?

End of the Road

Diesel cars make up more than half the European market, and European governments have had qualms about diesel vehicle emissions since 2011. After VW’s chicanery in the United States came to light, the U.K., German, and French governments tested almost 150 diesel models in the real world. About 90 percent of the vehicles they tested exceeded the legal nitrous oxide limit that the cars met when they were tested in the lab. In the real world, the vehicles emitted, on average, more than six times the emission standards.

But this news, which came to light in April, has not ignited a similar firestorm. This is partly because these carmakers didn’t hide their defeat devices; instead, they claimed the devices were exempt.

There are valid exemptions. When a vehicle has to blast up a mountain, for example, it must temporarily turn its emissions controls off to avoid burning out the engine’s catalyst. This temporarily releases more pollutants, but it’s limited, has a purpose, and is within defined conditions, which makes it both a desirable and a legitimate exception.

Unfortunately, when it comes to enforcement, Europe has a structural problem. The European Commission sets emission standards for the entire European Union, but it’s up to individual countries to certify that vehicles meet these standards—and because it’s the European Union, every country must accept every other country’s certification. This means, explains German, “that manufacturers just go shopping to see which country is going to do the least enforcement.” And because the E.U. hasn’t even defined important terms such as “normal use” and “emission control system,” companies have been even more emboldened to define those things in ways that benefit themselves.

German lingers on this point for several reasons: Though U.S. standards are strong, the rest of the world mostly follows Europe, which means manufacturers can exploit Europe’s imprecisions and spew pollutants all around the world. And though VW’s cheating has raised a huge stink in the United States, only 500,000 vehicles were affected here. Compare that to the 11 million vehicles that VW also equipped with defeat devices around the globe—and the even larger, yet unknown, number of bad diesel cars made by other manufacturers. The settlement VW reached with the U.S. government doesn’t affect any of them.

But though the U.S. settlement covers just a sliver of the problem, its scale is still staggering. If VW can’t find a way to fix the models covered in the settlement, which it has not yet been able to do, it must buy the cars back at the price they would have fetched before the scandal broke. And VW isn’t allowed to sell those 500,000 cars anywhere else. And that could mean that the company would have to turn a mountain of defunct diesel vehicles, once known as Das Auto, into Der Schrotthaufen: the scrapheap.



Click the image below to open the infographic as a PDF.

Top illustration by Erin Nelson. Infographic by Dan Zettwoch.