What’s the problem with VW diesel emissions?

Volkswagen has been in the news recently and for all the wrong reasons.

American environmental watchdogs, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have discovered that VW’s diesel vehicles’ low exhaust emissions aren’t what they seem.

Under pressure VW have admitted that their diesels are equipped with software that detects when its cars are being tested for emissions and turns on pollution controls when that’s happening. The rest of the time the controls are turned off and 11 million VW diesels worldwide are putting out between five and 40 times more pollutants than they should have been.

It’s forced a frank mea culpa from VW’s American CEO, Michael Horn.

“We have totally screwed up,” Mr Horn said.

“Our company was dishonest with the EPA, and the California Air Resources Board and with all of you. We must fix the cars to prevent this from ever happening again and we have to make this right. This kind of behaviour is totally inconsistent with our core values.”

The discovery of VW’s higher emissions was made by the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT). The ICCT is an independent non-profit group providing advice to regulators about vehicle emissions. They have a particular interest in testing emissions under real world driving conditions, rather than the standardised laboratory testing used by carmakers and regulatory agencies. Rather ironically, they were trying to highlight how clean VW’s diesels were when they tested them.

Why did they do it?

So why on earth would VW go to the trouble to design complex software to switch on emission controls and change their cars’ performance when they’re being tested?

Well performance is the key word.

Emission control technology is a combination of inner-engine modifications coupled with exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), lean-burn NOX adsorbers (not a typo, also called lean NOX traps, or LNTs), and selective catalytic reduction (SCR). While it does a commendable job of reducing polluting nitrogen oxides entering the atmosphere, there’s a downside in reduced performance and higher fuel consumption.

VW’s economical high performance diesels come at an environmental cost that until now has been hidden. If VW executives were gambling that they could get away with this high-tech deception then they’ve definitely lost their bet. The company is now facing possible fines of over A$25 billion and their share price has dropped by a quarter in a week. Its CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has recently resigned. That could be just the start of it with potential recall notices and diminished resale values for VW turbo diesels and potential legal action from owners.

Diesels and pollution

Modern turbo diesels offer drivers a great combination of performance, driveability and fuel economy but are inherently more polluting than petrol vehicles. Diesel exhaust contains up to 20 times more nitrogen oxides than petrol exhaust while also emitting harmful fine particles, or particulates, which can have serious health effects.

The fumes from diesels can cause lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer, while long-term exposure can also create respiratory problems like asthma.

However strict emission standards, such as the Euro 6 standards, have greatly reduced emissions while posing a considerable technical challenge to car makers. The days of filthy black smoke pouring out of stinking diesel vehicles are mostly a thing of the past.

VW in Australia

So what does it all mean for Australian VW owners? Well at the moment things are a bit uncertain with VW Australia checking with its German headquarters to see if Australian VWs have the same technology allowing it to bypass emissions tests.

However more than 50,000 local VWs sold from 2009 to 2015 could be affected if they do share the technology, not including Skodas and Audis, which are both owned by VW and share the same engines.

If you own a VW diesel there’s no cause for alarm. VWs are not being recalled at the moment and it’s unclear what will happen if they are, though a software fix seems the most likely option.

Time will tell how that affects the performance of VW diesels and whether VW owners will rush to their dealers to potentially make their cars slower and thirstier in the event of a recall.

What’s it all about?
VW has admitted using software in its diesel cars that automatically reduce emissions when they’re being tested for them, but not during normal driving.
Why does it matter?
VW diesels produce far more emissions in normal driving than their official figures suggest.
What’s the problem with diesel emissions?
Diesel exhaust emissions contain nitrogen oxides and particles that can cause cancer and other health problems, so minimising them is important.
Why would VW want to switch off emission controls anyway?
Emission control technology can reduce a car’s performance and fuel economy.
What’s the solution?
Fixing the problem may be as simple as re-programming the vehicle’s software, though that will probably make them slower and thirstier.
Are Aussie VW diesel owners affected?
Uncertain at this stage. VW Australia and the Australian Government have asked VW in Germany for information about software in Australian cars.
What’s it all about?
VW has admitted using software in its diesel cars that automatically reduce emissions when they’re being tested for them, but not during normal driving.
Why does it matter?
VW diesels produce far more emissions in normal driving than their official figures suggest.
What’s the problem with diesel emissions?
Diesel exhaust emissions contain nitrogen oxides and particles that can cause cancer and other health problems, so minimising them is important.
Why would VW want to switch off emission controls anyway?
Emission control technology can reduce a car’s performance and fuel economy.
What’s the solution?
Fixing the problem may be as simple as re-programming the vehicle’s software, though that will probably make them slower and thirstier.
Are Aussie VW diesel owners affected?
Uncertain at this stage. VW Australia and the Australian Government have asked VW in Germany for information about software in Australian cars.

 

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