VW Dieselgate: Economic war or fraud?

VW Dieselgate: Economic war or fraud?

by Dr-Ing Ernst Pauli

The author of these lines spent 20 years of his professional life working in the field of emissions of motor vehicles, and when the first reports on the subject came up, he firmly believed that this was a constructed accusation and ultimately an economic war against the German automotive industry. He was supported in this opinion knowing that, for physical-technical reasons, NOx emissions are “naturally” higher in normal road travel at higher engine power than in emission testing, which is clear to every expert. After all, it is clear to every layman that the engine of a vehicle becomes “naturally” much louder during strong acceleration. More and more investigation has shown, however, that manipulation, not to say fraud, but at least the unethical behaviour of the engineers and managers involved plays a role as well.

What caused the scandal?

The first and triggering report on the VW Dieselgate, published in May 2014,1 was initiated by the ICCT (International Council on Clean Transportation), an organisation founded 10 years ago as an informal network of experts in the field of vehicle emissions. Later it became an independent, non-profit-oriented research organisation with the purpose of advising politicians and legislators on environmental pollution and emissions from motor vehicles. Although particularly supported by American foundations worth billions, such as the Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and in Europe the Mercator Foundation it pursues mainly non-American projects in developing countries and emerging markets such as China and India. In the United States, the ICCT has long been involved in comparing the official results of vehicle tests carried out on roller dynamometers in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions with the behaviour of vehicles in real road traffic, on motorways and interstate roads, measuring them in actual driving operation. Similarly, such tests are also carried out by European authorities and research institutes. Road testing has recently become possible as well with regard to the emission of pollutants such as hydrocarbons, particles and nitrogen oxides, since the measuring devices have become so small that they can be taken in the boot of a car measuring this way exhaust emissions. On behalf of the ICCT, the University of West Virginia has carried out such measurements on the road and compared them with the officially prescribed emission limits, the vehicles have to be compliant with. The result was published on 15 May 2014 and was also forwarded to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the CARB (California Air Resources Board). It included emission measurements in urban traffic, on motorways and mountain roads of three diesel vehicles, two VW brand vehicles and one BMW brand vehicle. The tests showed spectacular, several times higher NOx emissions compared to those measured in the official tests, especially on VW vehicles.
Authorities became suspicious, and VW, asked for the reasons of the increased emissions, apparently showed little cooperation in the following discussions with authorities and tried to conceal and hide the real reasons for the very high NOx emissions by all means, including clear lies and misinformation. VW even carried out a recall of 500,000 vehicles in the US in December 2014 “voluntarily”, with the aim of concealment rather than clarification. It would, according to VW, solve the problem, but it did not make things any better, as the authorities had to prove to VW representatives. The source of the problems was deliberately concealed by VW and not eliminated. The then responsible VW manager was in the USA sentenced to seven-year prison in this context.2 Apparently, it was believed over a long period of time that the authorities could be left in the dark about the true causes of the increased emissions. At the end of the day, repeated and increasingly extensive investigations and measurements carried out by the authorities concerned with high efforts confirmed the suspicion that optimised engine settings were tailored to provide the lowest possible emissions, but only in the prescribed test procedures. It was realised that similarly as in the road tests, the emissions increased inexplicably applying small, actually irrelevant variations of the test conditions, changed ambient temperatures or minor deviations from the prescribed driving cycle. This behaviour led the authorities to suspect that a manipulating engine control system, known in the USA as a “defeat device”, switched off the emission-reducing measures outside the test conditions or reduced their effect. The technical discussions to clarify the reasons for the unexpected results took almost one and a half year until autumn 2015 without any results. It was only when the American environmental authorities threatened not to allow the sale of new VW models for the year 2016 that VW admitted the unbelievable, namely that the engine settings had been optimised with unfair means for the emission test and that a so-called defeat device had been used, which led in the final effect to many times higher NOx emissions in the normal operation of the vehicles on the road compared to the test results. The goal of the exhaust gas legislation, the Clean Air Act in the USA, was reduced to absurdity. Following further investigations and discussions, the US Environmental Protection Agency formally issued a letter to VW and Audi on 18 September 2015, accusing them of violating the Clean Air Act in their vehicles by deliberately manipulating emission measurements by means of a “defeat device” and using software that detects when the vehicle is subject to an official emission test. That is how things began to take off, also in Europe.

The so-called scandal has had a long history

There have been problems around the interpretation of exhaust gas legislation, including allegations of manipulation, as long as the regulations for limiting exhaust gas emissions exist. As early as 1973, a fine was imposed in the United States for the first time in this context. The official accusation that the laws were being circumvented inadmissibly repeatedly led to fines and requests for corrective measures to be rendered by car manufacturers. The technical and physical interrelationships and problems that arise are difficult to describe clearly in legislation. The conflict is inevitable.
A classic example is the discussion in 1995 about an air conditioning system in General Motors vehicles, which was switched off during the emission tests, but once used, it caused higher emissions during normal driving. GM had not declared this and had to pay a fine. With 44 million USD, it was comparatively moderate, similar to many other cases of European or American manufacturers.
Outside of the official tests, emissions legislation in normal road traffic has so far only limited effect and opens up room for interpretation. When there is talk about “defeat devices” in the press today, it is as well a flowing transition to technically necessary adjustments of the engines operating condition. The interpretations in this grey area are partly at the limit of what is justifiable, and there are apparently clumsy manipulations. Surprising and significant for such a complex problem is that the detailed proof of VW manipulation on the basis of individual program-lines of the engine control system was first presented at an event of the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg3. The “programmer”, who provided the proof on the software of his private vehicle by “hacking” the vehicle software, has done a very comprehensible job and later also testified in an investigation committee of the German “Bundestag”. It was finally confirmed by his work that VW installed the so-called “acoustic function” as a defeat device under the pretext of damping the noise emission of the diesel engine during cold start. As soon as the ambient temperature deviates from the 20-30°C prescribed for the test, the emission-reducing measures were switched off or reduced, allegedly in order to avoid increased noise of the engine in the cold state. It is also clear to the non-technician that with average annual temperatures in our latitudes of about 10°C, the specified temperature range does not occur too often and therefore the devices for emission reduction remain switched off or work reduced in a large portion of the operating time. The advantage achieved is actually banal. The auxiliary tank, which holds the chemicals carried in the vehicle for decomposition of the nitrogen oxides in the exhaust gas, would have had to be refilled more often than in the normal inspection intervals if the correct procedure had been followed. The customers were not expected to put up with this loss of comfort, and one was afraid to lose sales opportunities and market share.

Economic warfare?

The fact that VW is now at the centre of attention and is being attacked by many sides, even though other companies interpret the exhaust gas legislation in a similarly questionable way, must also be seen in conjunction with VW’s corporate policy. Volkswagen’s goal was to achieve an annual production of more than 10 million vehicles and thus become the number one in the motor vehicle market. In order to achieve this goal, sales of diesel vehicles in the USA were to be accelerated with the argument of environmental friendliness and very low fuel consumption.4 This approach has probably provoked resistance. When the above-mentioned activities of environmentalists then revealed that at least one strong sales argument, i. e. that of low emissions, was inappropriate, the scandal came into being and the campaign against diesel engines in the USA and Europe was started. However, considering that the US vehicle population consists only of diesel vehicles to a very small extent, and that the vehicles concerned account for 0.2% of the American vehicle population, the “Dieselgate” as it is now in every newspaper does not seem really appropriate.
One should also compare the Dieselgate and the required fines with other scandals in the USA: The Ford Pinto, produced by Ford in the 1970s, was designed in such a way that the fuel-tank caught fire even in minor rear-end collisions. Lives were lost. There were more than 100 people killed in minor accidents. Ford had drawn up a frighteningly misanthropic bill according to which it was cheaper to compensate accident victims or their relatives than to make the fuel tank safer with an additional rubber cover at the price of 12 USD per vehicle. There were class actions, convictions and compensations. Finally, the punitive damages paid to the Department of Justice were reduced to a comparatively low 3.5 million USD fine.5
In one case with GM, defects in the ignition lock with fatal consequences (124 fatalities) were known to the company without triggering a recall and repair action. GM paid a fine of 900 million USD to the state and 600 million USD to survivors. The situation was similar with the Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata. Only in the United States, 70 million airbags had to be recalled, at least 14 people killed and 184 injured due to the defects of the product.6 The company admitted criminal offences, cooperated closely with the authorities and agreed to pay a billion dollars in fines to the state. In a recent case in 2014, Toyota was fined 1.2 billion dollars. Unintentional acceleration of Toyota cars had led to 89 fatal road accidents.7 In the case of VW it is not about people killed, but the fines are extremely high in comparison. Ultimately, an acknowledgment of debt by VW and subsequently a settlement8, an agreement between VW and the US Department of Justice was reached in January 2017 with a pure fine of 4.3 billion USD. The sum of VW’s payments, the compensation payments to customers and any repurchases of vehicles, as well as the payments resulting from the settlement with the US Department of Justice, have already exceeded a total of 25 billion USD and are not in any way comparable to the aforementioned cases with direct fatalities.

The situation in Europe

In the meantime, it is clear that other manufacturers’ vehicles in Europe are behaving the same or similarly. It is known that measures similar to the VW approach have been taken. The relevant legislation states that vehicles shall comply with emission limits under “normal operating conditions” and that defeat devices shall be permissible only if they are conducive to the protection and reliable operation of the vehicle. Due to this “soft” wording, it is also not disputed by the authorities that emission legislation lacks clarity, at least in Europe, that the wording of the laws and regulations is vague and imprecise and that there is wide room for interpretation.9 Each manufacturer has to struggle with the unclear regulations described above. However, the problem is of course solved in quite different ways, not always without doubt. The fact that the manufacturer VW, with its fuel-efficient diesel engines, is now being built up as the big and only culprit, although measurements show meanwhile that the newer VW brand vehicles, according to a comprehensive comparative ADAC measurement, have relatively low emissions10, has more to do with preventing the success of the VW brand as far as possible than with the actually used defeat-devices. Unfortunately, in Germany in particular, the topic is being cooked up in blind succession to the US actions. In any case, the driving bans on diesel vehicles in city centres that have been discussed are going far beyond a reasonable target.

The emission limits

In the background to all these discussions is the limit value for NOx-emissions of diesel vehicles and the air quality, mainly in cities. All NOx emission oxidises in air finally to NO2. It is an irritant gas that is particularly effective in the respiratory tract. Limit values for NO2 concentrations, which have a safety margin to the efficacy threshold, have been established from various toxicological studies on professionals who have been exposed to NO2 emissions, long-term and short-term exposure. The maximum allowable workplace concentration at an industrial workplace (MAK, 8 h per day, 40 h per week) for NOx is 950 µg/m3.11 Opposite to this value, the WHO epidemiologically derived an effect threshold with a maximum allowable concentration in the ambient air of 40 µg/m3. It is only exceeded at central locations with extreme traffic density in conurbations. However, the large discrepancy between the limit values set from different viewpoints, after all a factor of 24, clearly shows that very different assessments exist on the effects of the NO2 emissions, which are so hotly debated. The actual health consequences should definitely be kept as small as possible, but the uncertainty in assessing the effects of inhalation of NO2 is extremely high. There is a number of publications which, based on the higher NOx emissions recorded in real operation and the assumptions documented by the WHO, also report extreme figures for additional victims or deaths and lost years of life. In view of the many studies that do not find toxicological effects in the concentrations under discussion, such studies12 should probably be referred to speculation. The planned driving bans on diesel vehicles in German city centres therefore lack a solid basis for the actual health hazard and the limit values to be applied. Against this background, the decisions on driving bans in Germany planned for February will be discussed very controversially.
In addition, NOx emissions never occur on their own, but always together with potentially more harmful soot particles in the exhaust gas, with particulate matter from tyre and brake pad abrasion. The heated debate about a single pollutant is therefore not really effective. The fact that the limit values for particulate emissions of diesel vehicles with a proven carcinogenic effect are now being massively undercut by the use of particulate filters is not worth a single line in the current discussion. The whole system of transport and its emissions should be discussed. The diesel debate and the discussion on a single pollutant tend to distract from the overall problem. The question would be how to make individual transport more environmentally friendly in its present form. The diesel engine is still as good or as bad as the gasoline engine. In the exhaust of the latter were in September 2017 very high particle emissions detected when the engine started cold.13 This problem is currently also addressed with particulate filters for the gasoline engine, but hopefully not with a new press campaign.

The emission limits

In the background to all these discussions is the limit value for NOx-emissions of diesel vehicles and the air quality, mainly in cities. All NOx emission oxidises in air finally to NO2. It is an irritant gas that is particularly effective in the respiratory tract. Limit values for NO2 concentrations, which have a safety margin to the efficacy threshold, have been established from various toxicological studies on professionals who have been exposed to NO2 emissions, long-term and short-term exposure. The maximum allowable workplace concentration at an industrial workplace (MAK, 8 h per day, 40 h per week) for NOx is 950 µg/m3.11 Opposite to this value, the WHO epidemiologically derived an effect threshold with a maximum allowable concentration in the ambient air of 40 µg/m3. It is only exceeded at central locations with extreme traffic density in conurbations. However, the large discrepancy between the limit values set from different viewpoints, after all a factor of 24, clearly shows that very different assessments exist on the effects of the NO2 emissions, which are so hotly debated. The actual health consequences should definitely be kept as small as possible, but the uncertainty in assessing the effects of inhalation of NO2 is extremely high. There is a number of publications which, based on the higher NOx emissions recorded in real operation and the assumptions documented by the WHO, also report extreme figures for additional victims or deaths and lost years of life. In view of the many studies that do not find toxicological effects in the concentrations under discussion, such studies12 should probably be referred to speculation. The planned driving bans on diesel vehicles in German city centres therefore lack a solid basis for the actual health hazard and the limit values to be applied. Against this background, the decisions on driving bans in Germany planned for February will be discussed very controversially.
In addition, NOx emissions never occur on their own, but always together with potentially more harmful soot particles in the exhaust gas, with particulate matter from tyre and brake pad abrasion. The heated debate about a single pollutant is therefore not really effective. The fact that the limit values for particulate emissions of diesel vehicles with a proven carcinogenic effect are now being massively undercut by the use of particulate filters is not worth a single line in the current discussion. The whole system of transport and its emissions should be discussed. The diesel debate and the discussion on a single pollutant tend to distract from the overall problem. The question would be how to make individual transport more environmentally friendly in its present form. The diesel engine is still as good or as bad as the gasoline engine. In the exhaust of the latter were in September 2017 very high particle emissions detected when the engine started cold.13 This problem is currently also addressed with particulate filters for the gasoline engine, but hopefully not with a new press campaign.

Real road emissions have decreased

Already much earlier than current media coverage suggests, experts have dealt with the subject matter.14 It was already investigated in 2012 and earlier that real emissions on the road are above the limits prescribed for the official test cycle. Nevertheless, in a relative comparison between 2000 and 2014, a reduction of NOx emissions in road transport operation by a factor of about 7 was documented for real driving operation. During the same period, the limit values of the official tests were reduced by a factor of about 6. The stricter emission legislation has thus not remained ineffective.

Ethical aspects

It is more than surprising that in the meantime it has turned out that a large number of well-trained VW employees knew about the manipulations and that no one had tried to prevent the unethical approach or perhaps made it public. Practically all major companies, including VW, have a “code of ethics” and a “whistleblower system” in place to combat corruption, economic crime or unethical acts, and appropriate employee training is provided. A similar situation exists in American companies under the title “Raise an Ombuds Concern” or “Whistle-blower”, where employees are asked to express their concerns in the event of rule or law violations to neutral ombudspersons or to external attorneys bound by the attorney-client privilege, as in the case of VW. Despite assurances, the system is or was apparently not used because of a fear of disadvantages and job losses, at least not in this case. Has the responsibility for the general public been lost to such an extent that the economic success of the company, the professional career, is more important than anything else? Are the internal discussions within the company only and exclusively focused on economic success? There is indeed a discussion about the ethical side of the Dieselgate, but unfortunately it is being led by newspapers or so-called “business ethicists” and is exhausted by criticising the complex management structure of the VW-Group and speculating who knew or was informed about what and when in the management. The way in which the issue has been dealt with and discussed at the immediate working level is nowhere found. A famous quote comes to mind that was made before the fatal NASA-Challenger mission was launched, where, contrary to the concerns of the engineers, the launch was given the go-ahead with catastrophic consequences, the death of 5 astronauts: “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat”. This attitude has possibly played a role when the big Volkswagen dream of taking first place among vehicle manufacturers seemed to be in jeopardy.     •

1    Thompson, Gregory J. et al. In-Use Emissions Testing of Light-Duty Diesel Vehicles in the United States – Final Report, Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines & Emissions, West Virginia University, 15.5.2014
2    “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, US-Richter kennen keine Gnade für VW-Manager (No mercy for VW-managers by US judges) 7.12.2017.
3    Domke, Felix. A hacker explains the VW fraud, lecture at the congress CHAOS COMPUTER CLUB, 29.12.2015
4    Ewing, Jack. Faster, Higher, Farther. The Volkswagen Scandal, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 2017, ISBN 978-0-393-25450-1
5    Birsch, Douglas. The Ford  Pinto Case: A Study in Applied Ethics, Business, and Technology, Suny Series. 1.10.1994, ISBN13: 978-0-7914-2233-5
6    “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, dpa. Takata zahlt Milliardenstrafe (Takata pays a fine) 13.1.2017.
7    ABC-News. Toyota to pay $1.2B for hiding deadly ‘Unintended Acceleration’, 19.3.2014
8    US-Department of Justice. Volkswagen AG Agrees to Plead Guilty and Pay $4.3 Billion in Criminal and Civil Penalties, 11.01.2017
9    “Deutscher Bundestag”, 18. Wahlperiode. Drucksache 18/12900, Berlin, 22.6.2017 (official hearing in the German parliament)
10    ADAC ECOTEST 09/2015 Stickoxide im Weltzyklus WLTCC (Nitrogen oxides in the Worldwide harmonised Light Vehicle Test).
11    European Commission SCOEL (Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits for NOx), June 2014
12    Anenberg, Susan et al. Impacts and mitigation of excess diesel-related NOx emissions in 11 major vehicle markets, Nature, 25.5.2017, Vol 545, p.467
13    Platt, S. M. et al. Gasoline cars produce more carbonaceous particulate matter than modern filter-equipped diesel cars, Nature Scientific Report, 13.7.2017
14     Weiss, Martin et al. On-Road Emissions of Light-Duty Vehicles in Europe, Environmental Science & Technology 2011, 45, 8575–8581, doi.org/10.1021/es2008424

And yet another attempt to hit VW?

ep. In the last weeks of January there was another massive press campaign against VW. It is based on a report in the “New York Times” about experiments initiated by VW and other automobile manufacturers in which reportedly monkeys were exposed to diesel engine exhaust gas. The tests were carried out in 2014, so they were probably planned before the Dieselgate. Nothing is publicly known about the actual procedures, driving cycles and concentrations or dilution factors used in these tests, and there is no report written.
In the same campaign, a measurement was reported in which healthy volunteers were exposed to nitrogen dioxide concentrations in air at the Aachen University Hospital. The study was planned in 2012, carried out in 2013 and 2014, i. e. well before the exposure of the diesel scandal.
In both cases, there is great moral indignation expressed: in all the newspapers, by the German Chancellor and even by the VW management. It signals outrage in retrospect, however, it actually ordered together with other companies this investigation. There is a detailed report about the experiments on humans available. They have been approved by the Ethics Committee of the Aachen University. No wonder, since the test subjects were exposed to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide for 3 hours at a maximum of half of the MAK value of 6000 µg/m3 valid until 2009, a concentration that industrial workers were allowed to be exposed to until 2009 during their entire working life in Switzerland and Germany. The concentrations used were in the range of the new MAK limit value (from 2009 onwards) of 950 µg/m3 and, as expected, did not show any effects on the test persons. It is worth mentioning, and this has also got lost in the general agitation, that it was not a diesel engine exhaust gas investigated in Aachen, but an exclusive addition of nitrogen dioxide to the air. Here too, the impact of the press campaign is disproportionate to what actually happened. Experiments on animals and humans correspond to strictly controlled but normal research practice. Is it a strong indication of a staged economic warfare, when the attempts at apes, whose details are completely unknown, and the attempts on humans, who are nevertheless rather uncritical, are so highly played out?

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​