What were they thinking?
In a bizarre twist of fate, at the same time that Volkswagen executives were showcasing the companies new "eco-friendly" models at the IAA auto show in Frankfurt, CARB and EPA officials in North America were accusing the company of installing clean-air cheating device software that evaded US limits on nitrogen oxide and other pollutants.
How is it that Volkswagen, Originally created in 1937 by the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) to produce a cheap (US$396 in 1930s dollars) passenger vehicle for the masses, breached the trust of the very people it was created to serve?
Why did Volkswagen need to cheat U.S. government emission rules with its four-cylinder diesels?
At the heart of the diesel emissions scandal is VW's desire to boost its lackluster sales in the U.S. with a unique selling proposition and at the same time expand the market for what is still seen as a very European-centric technology. The trouble was that the early engines could not meet the very strict North American emissions regulations without expensive Selective catalytic reduction (SCR).
According to the Bild am Sonntagthe roots of the crisis go back to 2005 when then-VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard wanted VW to develop a new diesel engine for the U.S. market. Bernhard recruited Audi engineer Rudolf Krebs who developed a prototype that performed well in tests in South Africa in 2006.
However, although the engine performed well Bernhard and Krebs realised that the only way to make the engine meet U.S. emission standards was to employ SRC and AdBlue urea solution dosing found on VW’s larger, more costly models such as the Passat and Touareg. This would have added 300 euros per vehicle, an amount that VW found unacceptable: Remember this was taking place at a time when a companywide cost-cutting exercise, initiated by Jose Ignacio Lopez, was underway.
Instead of fitting SCR, which periodically injects AdBlue urea into the exhaust system just after the oxidation catalytic converter,VW chose to fit a simpler, cheaper Lean NOx trap, or LNT and Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR).
Fitted to the exhaust system, downstream of the engine’s exhaust manifold, the LNT stores nitrogen oxide when the engine is running lean. When the trap begins to fill, the engine ECU switches to a richer running mode where the fuel-injection system sprays more fuel into each cylinder. The richer fuel mixture causes the stored NOx in the LNT to be converted into nitrogen. It is then released from the LNT into the exhaust system.
AS well as the LNT, VW make use of EGR to reduce combustion temperatures which are significantly higher than those found in petrol engines. Because diesel combustion occurs at very high temperatures, it produces higher NOx than gasoline engines and therefore relies on EGR to reduce combustion temperatures and associated NOx emissions.
Robert Bosch inadvertently supplied VW with the cheat software
To assist VW in evaluating the various technical options Robert Bosch supplied the company with engine management software which could be used to simulate test and real world driving conditions. However in 2007 VW was warned that it would be illegal to use this engine management software, now at the heart of the diesels emissions scandal, in production cars.
According to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's Sunday edition, in 2011 VW was again warned by one of its own engineers about the consequences of illegal emissions testing practices. VW chose to ignore the warnings and set about adapting the test software to circumvent U.S. and California pollution rules by fully activating the exhaust scrubbing systems only when the car was being put through precisely prescribed government emissions tests. It is not yet clear what exactly this software does, but we can make some educated guesses.
On earlier vehicles, the activation of EGR and LNT have significant performance drawbacks: Recirculating exhaust gas, unsurprisingly, reduces engine performance, while LNTs work by absorbing NOx. Unfortunately they rapidly become saturated and have to be regenerated every few seconds by pumping extra fuel into the engine, which increases fuel consumption.
Beginning in 2012, Volkswagen offered the same 2.0 TDI engines with Selective Catalytic Reduction. The company admits to also fitting defeatist software to these vehicles that turned them off during normal driving. The consequences of running these systems all the time will be different to those using the older, NOx traps.
According to Marc Trahan, retired vice president of group quality at VW, ideally, the urea solution used to control smog-forming gases is supposed to be replaced every 10,000 miles, typically by a dealer. However on models fitted with the SCR system, Trahan said there were concerns within the company about the urea consumption being so great that it would require separate "fill-ups" every 5,000 miles, rather than the desired 10,000-mile intervals that are typical between engine oil changes.
Volkswagen’s cheat must involve tweaking some or all of these factors. The software may turn off exhaust gas recirculation to boost performance, for instance. It may regenerate LNTs less often than required to save fuel, or reduce the amount of urea injected into SCRs so the tank needs refilling less often.
In theory, Volkswagen could reduce NOx emissions by fixing the software, although its engineers seem to have been unable to do this when consulted by the US Environmental Protection Agency about the anomalous test results. The trouble Volkswagen faces is that, in the car models that do not have SCRs, reducing NOx emissions could have a major impact on performance and fuel consumption.
Reckless decisions destroy the environment, reputation and above all, trust!
An analysis by UK online publication The Guardian found the 482,000 VW’s fitted with the offending Type EA 189 engine in the US would have discharged between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual US mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would only have emitted 1,039 tonnes of NOx each year.
However with the company admitting to fitting the device to 11m of its vehicles worldwide, defective vehicles could be responsible for between 237,161 and 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions each year, 10 to 40 times the pollution standard for new models in the US. In comparison Western Europe’s biggest power station, Drax in the UK, emits 39,000 tonnes of NOx each year.
This month General Motors announced it will pay a $900 million fine in connection with its shoddy ignition-switch recall. In 2014 Toyota agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle claims by the U.S. Department of Justice that it suppressed what it knew about safety flaws in its vehicles connected to its unintended-acceleration crisis.
Image Credit: fivethirtyeight.com
In a matter of a few years the world’s three largest automakers have been hit by image-ravaging scandals that have one thing in common: a clear and calculated intention to deceive.
It’s high time the industry I, and millions of others, care deeply about takes a hard look at its ethics when conducting business. It’s time CEO’s and leaders are held personally liable for the cheating and deceiving that takes place in the name of profit, or future-generation car buyers will never trust them. The companies will be better known for their lies than for the exciting products they develop.
- Illegal VW diesel emission systems may require two solutions – Reuters (Paul Lienert and Joseph White)
- Winterkorn's exit should be a wake-up call for automakers – Automotive News Europe (Luca Ciferri)
- Anatomy of a cheat: Here’s what Volkswagen did and how they got caught – Business Insider (Ben Moshinsky)