Volkswagen Sums Up Diesel Situation, Admits Guilt On Info Site

September 28, 2015

After a week of being in the headlines deceiving the federal government and the public over its TDI "clean diesel" vehicles, Volkswagen has rolled out a new consumer-facing website that aims to answer some common questions and do some damage control in the wake of the widening scandal.

Although if you've missed many of these headlines and own one of the affected vehicles, we don't recommend actually visiting—especially if you are currently taking any form of heart medication. It's pretty terrible.


The first page of the website includes a video from VW's American chief, Michael Horn (see above). He issues a brief apology, then assures viewers that those years of lies don't reflect VW's corporate values.

Let's stop right there for a second.

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It would be easy for VW fans to draw comparisons between Horn's statement and statements made by General Motors' CEO Mary Barra a year-and-a-half ago about the faulty ignition switches it installed on millions of U.S. vehicles.

And there are, in truth, some parallels. In both cases, the companies' products failed to live up to standards. In both cases, employees knew about those failures and said nothing. In both cases, the problems only came to light years later.

Many were quick to forgive Mary Barra. After all, she'd just landed her CEO gig a few months before the "Switchgate" scandal broke. Why should we feel any differently about Volkswagen or its German-accented U.S. head-honcho? At least VW's wrongdoing didn't result in hundreds of deaths and injuries. (As if anticipating such comparisons, Horn makes a point of saying that VW diesels are totally safe to drive.)

The problem is, while the transgressions of GM and VW look similar, they're different in one significant way.

GM's ignition switch was designed to be effective. It was purchased from a supplier—Delphi (PDF)—with the expectation that it would work as promised, even though it didn't. 

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VW's emissions software, however, was specifically designed to lie. It was specifically designed to deceive regulators and cheat on emissions tests. And though the story continues to unfold, it is likely that the illegal code was written in-house.

It's one thing to cover up an improperly performing part. It's quite another to design a part from scratch that breaks federal and state regulations.


Back to VW's website, where the trouble continues. Just below Horn's video, you'll find the company's opening statement, which underscores more problems with VW's attitude:

"On September 18, 2015, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. and Volkswagen AG received notice from the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board informing VW that those agencies had determined that certain of our 2.0L 4-cylinder TDI vehicles do not comply with applicable emissions standards."

Read that again. Read the last seven words. "Do not comply with applicable emissions standards".

Is that really the problem? Because we've been following this story pretty closely, and that doesn't seem to be the problem. As we understand it, the problem as it adds up for federal investigators and legal teams—the more expensive problem than fixing the cars, perhaps—will be that VW used custom-built software to cheat on emissions tests; and its officials then denied, for months if not years, that such a circumvention was in place.


The website goes on to say that "Volkswagen is committed to finding a remedy as soon as possible", which might suggest to optimists that a simple repair is just around the corner.

Based on what we know, however, it's not.

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The engineer who discovered VW's lies a year ago says that the fix for diesels should be easy—and from the perspective of software, he's probably right. Rolling out some new code would seem to fix the duplicitous software and issue proper emissions readings.

But as Automotive News points out, that's not such a practical fix.

The software designers would likely have to chose between disabling emissions controls on VW diesels entirely or leaving those controls running at full steam. The former option would allow diesels to keep their advertised fuel economy but put them afoul of state and federal emissions laws. The latter would bring them in line with those laws, but fuel economy would take a hit, sparking lawsuits from owners around the globe. And then there's the durability of the hardware, which VW will have to prove again with the new controls.

A middle path might be to engage some controls but not others, with VW adding physical parts to keep emissions in check. But manufacturing, testing, and installing those parts could take a very, very, very long time. Heck, Takata hasn't even been able to keep up with demand for replacement airbags to address its fatally flawed devices, and that's practically all Takata makes. How much worse would it be to create what is, essentially, a non-existent aftermarket system for a variety of different models?

Sorry folks, but this is going to get a lot uglier before it gets prettier.


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