German automakers—and especially Volkswagen—have waged a convincing campaign for diesels in recent years, promoting them as offering great fuel efficiency and driving characteristics that truly do provide a good match to U.S. driving conditions, all while effectively rebranding formerly sooty diesels, now significantly cleaned-up, as “clean diesels."
But after today, that moniker might need to be put on hiatus for some time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has accused Volkswagen of installing what it calls a “defeat device” on hundreds of thousands of Volkswagen and Audi models with four-cylinder TDI turbo-diesel engines.
The device, the federal agency accuses, is present to detect when an official emissions test is being run, and only turn on full emissions control systems during that time. The rest of that time, the vehicles would run in a mode that allows them to pollute more—specifically in terms of nitrogen oxide (NOx). And those levels could be up to 40 times the maximum levels permitted by federal Tier 2, Bin 5 limits (the current standard).
Not fuel-efficiency concerns, but health ones
For Volkswagen's TDI engines, including the ones affected by this issue, misrepresented fuel efficiency is certainly not part of this scandal. The automaker's diesel engines have consistently performed past their EPA numbers in a number of real-world tests and metrics—including our test experiences.
But these are concerns beyond that—to the air you're subjecting your family and community to. NOx emissions are attributed not just to ozone damage and acid-rain formation but also to local environmental effects; according to the EPA, it can be a concern for those with asthma, children, and the elderly, and “can aggravate existing heart disease, leading to increased hospital admissions and premature death.”
VW Group’s U.S. executives have recently moved from their fever pitch on clean diesel to a more bullish stance on vehicle electrification. However the 2.0-liter TDI engine remains an important part of the brand’s lineup for the foreseeable future, and this past week at the Frankfurt Motor Show company officials confirmed that it will be available on the 2017 Volkswagen Tiguan SUV.
2014 Volkswagen Beetle TDI
Other recent VW and Audi TDI models (such as those with the 3.0-liter V-6 TDI engine) use a urea injection system that adds a lot of cost and complexity—something that VW was able to avoid with these vehicles.
Volkswagen has thus far provided the following media response:
Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Volkswagen AG and Audi AG received today notice from the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board of an investigation related to certain emissions compliance matters.
VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time.
The state of California has also issued an In-Use Compliance letter to Volkswagen, and the EPA and California Air Resources Board (CARB) have started investigations.
“Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” said Cynthia Giles, of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. EPA will continue to investigate these very serious matters.”
The EPA does, however, say that the affected vehicles don't present a safety hazard and will remain legal to drive and resell—although we may see in upcoming days whether models in current dealer stock are considered fit for ongoing sales.
Check back for more on this story, as it develops this next week.
UPDATE: Over the weekend Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, issued the following statement:
The Board of Management at Volkswagen AG takes these findings very seriously. I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to
clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.
We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.
The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset. We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused. This matter has first priority for me, personally, and for our entire Board of Management.