Right now, Volkswagen is a deeply damaged brand in America.
THEY’RE calling it Dieselgate, of course. More than 40 years after five men linked to Republican president Richard Nixon were arrested attempting to bug democratic offices at the Watergate building in Washington, the “gate” suffix is still applied to any scandal that gets the American mainstream media’s attention.
That’s how bad things are for Volkswagen after admitting it installed cheater software that enabled its EA189 turbo-diesel engine to pass the country’s stringent emissions requirements.
Some on America’s political right – anti-regulationists and climate change deniers – say the problem is the emissions standards themselves. One conservative news website claimed that, while Volkswagen’s behaviour was “awful, nefarious, and indefensible”, cheating was to be expected “when it comes to phony moral imperatives” such as “American automotive emissions standards and their big brother, the worldwide global-warming crusade.”
But away from the lunatic fringe, the mainstream media’s tone dripped with indignation and outrage.
Volkswagen was already struggling in the US before Dieselgate broke. Though it wrested global sales leadership from Toyota this year, the US has long been a disaster. After becoming Volkswagen CEO in 2007, Martin Winterkorn made growth in America a priority, setting a target of 800,000 vehicles a year by 2018, but execution has failed to match ambition. Sales of Toyota-branded cars and trucks in the US last year topped two million; Volkswagen sales were a mere 366,970.
Diesel was part of Winterkorn’s US growth strategy, offering Volkswagen the opportunity to market driver-oriented, fuel-efficient vehicles to combat Toyota and its hybrids.
A two-part article titled Volkswagen’s New 2.0 L TDI Engine for the Most Stringent Emission Standards, published in the German engineering journal MTZ in 2008, details how the EA189 engine was “redeveloped to comply with the strictest exhaust fume limits in the world, namely the Tier 2, Bin 5 emission legislation in the USA” for launch in the US-market Jetta in mid-2008. The authors, Volkswagen engineers, claimed particulate and NOx emissions had been reduced by more than 90 percent and, crucially, that “emissions under customer conditions had been proven” in testing in the US.
Right now, Volkswagen is a deeply damaged brand in America. Winterkorn’s growth strategy is in tatters. Diesel is a damaged technology, too. Both BMW and Daimler have issued statements distancing themselves and their US diesel engines from the scandal.
But Dieselgate’s most far-reaching consequence may be increased scrutiny of all vehicle emissions in real-world conditions. Invoking an existing statute, the Environmental Protection Agency has said it may “test or require testing on any vehicle ... using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use…”
That’s a potential nightmare for all carmakers.
Was this the trigger?
THE discrepancy between the EA189’s real-world fuel consumption and its significantly better EPA fuel efficiency rating is the data point that sparked Dieselgate. Now we know how VW achieved that. The question is: Why?
The last-minute delay of the EA189’s US launch may be a clue. A dealer source says engineers found it needed over-fuelling more frequently than expected to burn off particulates from highly variable-quality US diesel fuel. Suddenly the EA189 was barely more efficient than a petrol engine, and a whole strategy was under threat. A quick fix was needed.