Volkswagen W A1

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Keywords: ezra dyer,volkswagen, diesel, emissions, epa, air pollution

Description: This isn't cost-cutting. This is outright cynical deceit.

If you're not up to speed on Volkswagen's shenanigans. you can catch up here. Suffice to say that it seems the A3's sanctimonious TDI Clean Diesel stickers were relevant only when the cars were actually undergoing an EPA emissions test. Out in the real world, 2.0-liter Volkswagens and Audis were as much as 40 times above the legal emissions limit for nitrogen oxides (NOx). According to the EPA, about 482,000 four-cylinder Volkswagens and Audis built since 2009 included what the agency defines as a "defeat device," which is really just software that detects an emissions test and "turns full emissions controls on only during the test." The cheater software was discovered by researchers at West Virginia University who were trying to document the cleanliness of modern diesels. Volkswagen surely wishes they hadn't bothered.

The revelation of this emissions subterfuge answers at least two questions about VW's mighty little diesel. The first concerns urea injection, which every other modern diesel uses to pass emissions tests. The urea-injection systems help to neutralize NOx emissions, but they also add weight and cost to the car, and saddle car buyers with yet another tank of liquid that must be monitored. If you run out of this diesel exhaust fluid, it's like running out of fuel—on trucks with such systems, running dry on urea triggers a severe limp-home mode with a 5 mph speed limiter. That's how seriously the EPA takes NOx.

Everyone wondered how VW met emissions standards while foregoing urea injection. As it turns out, they didn't. It wasn't magical German engineering. Just plain old fraud.

The second question concerned fuel economy. It's been widely noted that four-cylinder TDIs tend to smash their EPA fuel economy estimates in real-world driving. The last TDI Jetta SportWagen I drove was rated at 42 mpg highway, but on 60-mph two-lane roads I averaged more like 50 mpg. That's a huge difference. Did running non-compliant emissions improve fuel economy? That's possible. And if so, that raises an interesting question: When the cheater VWs emitted too much NOx, were they also emitting a lot less CO2 thanks to improved economy? Maybe the good doesn't offset the bad, but it's something to consider. You can bet that VW's lawyers will.

So, how is Volkswagen going to fix this? Putting aside the inevitable fines, possible criminal charges, and massive public disgrace, there are half a million cars running an emissions setup that never should've left the factory. And there's no quick fix to make up for VW's lies.

All the other carmakers control diesel emissions by spraying a urea solution into the exhaust stream, where a catalyst converts it to ammonia. The ammonia breaks down NOx into nitrogen and water. If all of that sounds like it would be tough to bolt right in, you're correct. Maybe VW can meet the standards without adding equipment—say, by tweaking the engine control unit (ECU) with a different tuning. But what if that new tuning meets the emissions standards but sacrifices performance or fuel economy? Now you've got 482,000 customers on a class action lawsuit.

There's no easy way out of this, but they'd better figure something out, and pronto. Right now dealers are banned from selling 2.0-liter TDIs, which make up about a quarter of VW's U.S. sales. News of the scandal caused VW to lose about a quarter of its market value, indicating that investors understand how bad this is. There's no cheap fix nor easy settlement here.

The intentionality behind the deceit makes this situation different from even a huge-scale recall. This isn't a story about a part that was made one cent cheaper than it should've been, where a car company cut a corner to save a little cash. It's about a huge corporation eying the rulebook and deciding there's a competitive advantage in violating the Clean Air Act. Incompetence is one thing, but calculated mendacity is quite another.

It's too bad. That Golf SportWagen TDI is a punchy, fun car. It's got great fuel economy, tons of torque and a bargain price. But when something seems a little too good to be true, maybe that's because it is.



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