Volkswagen recently came under fire for wiring its vehicles to deceive emissions tests, allowing over 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide to emit up to 40 times more than the allowable limit for airborne pollutants like nitrous oxide. While new details emerge in this story every day and Volkswagen, which recently surpassed Toyota as the largest automaker in the world, the facts that have already emerged offer valuable insights into the state of emissions testing and diesel vehicles.
Volkswagen engineers equipped a range of vehicles, currently known to include the Volkswagen Passat, Jetta, Golf, and the Audi A3, with a “defeat device” software, which senses when a vehicle is being put through an official emissions test and alters its emissions accordingly. While automakers have been taken to task over violations before, the scale and intention of this particular tampering is without precedent. How did Volkswagen perpetrate such pervasive fraud for so long? The answer lies in part in how car manufacturers conduct emissions testing.
In the United States, automakers perform their own emissions tests and report these scores to the EPA, whereas in Europe manufacturers choose which outside company conducts their emissions tests. This means that a system of regulations put in place to ensure that automakers adhere to environmental guidelines is being primarily controlled by the automakers themselves, and not the government organization tasked with regulating air quality and pollution.
These revelations also have the potential to wreak havoc on the diesel car industry. While Europe is dominated by diesel engines, lingering negative conceptions of diesel vehicles have made it difficult for diesel technology to gain a foothold in the American market. Volkswagen, which is working to remove every trace of its “Clean Diesel” campaign from the internet, was making headway with its sporty yet efficient lineup, but this transgression could set consumer interest in diesel technology back decades.
What started as a black eye for the Volkswagen Group could end up making waves for the entire automotive industry. Emissions standards are regulated more stringently than ever, and this scandal could fundamentally change the way automakers prove their vehicles meet the grade. Furthermore, clean diesel technology is unlikely to take meaningful steps forward without public interest, and this scandal has dragged diesel’s name through the mud. On the bright side, this scandal could result in a decrease in pollution and an increase in corporate interest in clean vehicles, providing a silver lining for VW’s dark nitrous-oxide cloud.