Keeping my VW Diesel till the Bitter End-Part 1: NMA E-Newsletter #417

By Greg Amy, Connecticut State Activist

By now you are well aware of the Volkswagen “TDI Scandal”. In September 2015, VW got caught by a West Virginia University lab cheating on its emissions testing procedures for 2009 – 2015 VW 2.0L TDI-equipped cars. Simply put, the EPA accused VW of putting code in its engine control units (ECU) to recognize that the car was being officially tested by the EPA and adjust the engine appropriately to pass the tests. However, when the car was being driven normally by the consumer, the ECU code would revert to different emissions levels to improve drivability and fuel economy. The result was increased emissions of NOx, claimed by the EPA to be “of 10 to 40 times above EPA compliant levels.”

VW could have addressed this by the addition of “selective catalytic reduction”, or SCR, which involves injecting urea into the exhaust; this is what they did on 2016 and later models. However, doing so affects the packaging of the components (tank, heater, and mixer) in the smaller vehicle and around the suspension components. That, of course, would cost extra money and intrude into interior space. Instead, in the mid-2000s VW worked on an alternative called “lean NOx trap” or LNT, which uses a catalyst to absorb and store NOx so it doesn’t escape into the atmosphere. It costs less and uses less space, but the downside is reduced fuel economy. VW apparently didn’t initially get it right and delayed delivery of TDI cars through the summer of 2008. But VW finally announced that they figured it out and the 2009 cars were eventually released. Now we know how they did it.

One can debate the final source of that decision–VW managers are pointing fingers at “rogue engineers” and vice versa–but ultimately that die was cast, placing Volkswagen in its current situation.

This past September a resolution was agreed to in Federal court: an estimated $14.7 billion in buybacks, repairs, fines, and punitive damages. Volkswagen has agreed to either buy back or repair all affected VW TDIs; buybacks will be at the wholesale value as of immediately prior to the public release of the scandal–values of TDIs plummeted on the news–plus $5,100. As of yet there is no approved “fix” for the emissions issue but if one is found and the owner chooses that option, they will receive a $5100 “we’re sorry” check.

No one is debating whether VW cheated the tests–they clearly did. Missing in the discussion is the regulatory limits to which they’re tested: are these limits reasonable to begin with? I’ve yet to find any supporting evidence that the 2009 and later Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations around which VW did an end-run are actually effective in, well, protecting the environment. These same cars meet the emissions regs in other parts of the world; EU regs, for example, are much more focused on big-picture environmental goals. Their standards push fuel efficiency and limit CO2 emissions; in the USA it’s all about acid rain (NOx), smog, and health impacts, which hurts fuel efficiency. VW’s cheat “resolved” the NOx problem.

As Eric Peters wrote in his blog last June:

It is not enough that the “affected” VW cars would have easily met all the standards in place circa five years ago – standards that were already extremely strict. Most people are not aware of the fact that since the 1990s, harmful exhaust emissions have been reduced to almost nothing; that for the past ten years at least, EPA has been chasing fractions of the remaining 3 or so percent of what comes out of a new car’s tailpipe that’s potentially an issue, air-quality or health-wise.

At some point – and we’ve arguably passed it – we’ll either have to accept that internal combustion will never be 100 percent ‘clean’ but that 97.5 percent’ “clean” is clean enough – or internal combustion will have to be outlawed.

Are our laws tainted with political bias with the implied intent to limit diesels (and other internal-combustion engines) in the passenger market? That theory is supported further by a secondary requirement of the federally-approved VW resolution. As part of the decree, VW is mandated to “direct $2 billion of investments over a period of up to 10 years into actions that will support increased use of zero emission vehicle (“ZEV”) technology in the United States, including, but not limited to, the development, construction, and maintenance of zero emission vehicle-related infrastructure.”

So, in effect, as part of VW’s penance, the Feds are mandating that one of the largest automakers in the world “invest” billions of dollars into EV technology. Any guess how that’s gonna work out for all the others that have to compete against this worldwide automotive Goliath? Expect Volkswagen to tout its new religion of “clean electric technology” at a dealership near you.

Read Part 2 in next week’s NMA E-Newsletter.

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