Timeline of VW’s Dieselgate, what did EPA/CARB do and when did they do it?

VW’s inaccurate emissions tests for 2009-15 TDI Diesel passenger cars was not an “accident”, according to the EPA.  It’s not like VW’s engineers misconfigured some testing equipment and accidentally came up with bogus numbers.  You might do that one year, like Hyundai/Kia did, but a company like Volkswagen would not make emissions testing mistakes for six years running.

The press right now is full of articles talking about VW CEO Martin Winterkorn saying he’s “sorry” and VW America CEO Michael Horn saying the company “totally screwed up”.

That’s not it – VW did not just “screw up”.  The phrase “screw up” implies having made an honest mistake.  A company like VW with its excellent engineering staff does not screw up repeatedly.  And if a top-notch world class German manufacturer like Volkswagen is screwing something up repeatedly, something is gravely wrong with our world.

The EPA says the problem was intentionally created, and I tend to believe the EPA.  To see why, let’s recount the sequence of events in a kind of “what did VW know, and when did they know it?” exercise.  Doing so will provide an answer to one question posed by The Fast Lane where they would ask “What did Winterkorn know, and when did he know it?”

EPA’s role in the story began in May 2014 when researchers at West Virginia University and The International Council on Clean Transportation (TheICCT) published a study showing significantly higher emissions when the test cars were in regular driving conditions, than when the test cars were in lab conditions.

Previously TheICCT had published a report showing a similar pattern for some cars in Europe.  They came to America thinking the American version of VW TDI Diesel cars, because the EPA ratings were so good, had to have some special emissions control technology that wasn’t being used in Europe.  Their hope was to convince European regulators that it’s possible to make Clean Diesel passenger cars.  After all, that’s the story VW had been telling since 2009, so it must be true, right?

TheICCT engineers had taken a 2012 Jetta TDI and 2013 Passat TDI on a cross-country trip while outfitted with portable emissions testing equipment supplied by WVU researchers.  Instead of the expected result, however, the cars showed much higher emissions while on the road than in the lab.

Following publication of the study, the EPA and CARB and VW worked to determine the cause of the discrepancy.  The EPA says that VW’s team “continued to assert” that the discrepancy was due to “various technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions.”

In December 2014, VW issued a recall to, according to the EPA, “address the issue.”

Using Google News to look back to last winter, I see a 38,000 car recall for a leaking fuel cap that could cause a fire.  By the end of January that recall had broadened to 80,000 cars, but it’s not clear whether these were TDI Diesel’s.

CARB and the EPA conducted followup tests to validate whether VW had managed to “address the issue”.  That software change produced limited benefit.   CARB then broadened the testing to “pinpoint the exact technical nature of the vehicles’ poor performance, and to investigate why the vehicles’ onboard diagnostic system was not detecting the increased emissions.”

According to the EPA letter, none of the technical issues suggested by VW “explained the higher test results consistently confirmed curing CARB’s testing.”

At risk was the certificate of conformity for VW’s 2016 diesel vehicles, without which VW could not sell those cars in America.  When it became clear the EPA would not give VW that certificate for 2016, VW finally admitted they had designed their cars with what the EPA calls a “defeat device”.

That “device” was really a test in the software to detect when the car is undergoing an emissions test.  The software would look for various conditions that only occur in emissions tests, and switch the car to a special “dyno calibration” mode that produced better emissions results.

The software in question dates back to the 2009 model VW TDI Diesel vehicles.  How do we know this?  The EPA published this list of affected vehicles.

VW/Audi vehicles affected by non-conformance with Clean Air Act regulations.

VW/Audi vehicles affected by non-conformance with Clean Air Act regulations.

The outline of events I just gave is what the EPA and CARB did in after the WVU/TheICCT report was published.  What happened before this?  When did VW know and what did they know?

The “When” has to have predated 2009.  Automakers spend several years designing iteration of each car, meaning work on the 2009 VW TDI’s might have begun in 2006 or earlier.  The 2009 model year was the first use of common rail based TDI Diesel engines at VW, and also coincided with a tightening up of emissions regulations.

VW claimed that the fuel efficiency improvements and other benefits of the new TDI Diesel design would be all the technology VW/Audi/etc would need to meet new regulatory requirements.

The open question is whether such a decision, to cheat the emissions tests, would be made by mid-level managers and engineers, or whether the decision had to be made at upper management levels?  How high does the problem go?

What we need to do – the correct response when one of the VW CEO’s says this was a mistake, or that they’re sorry, is to shout “liar liar pants on fire”!

Cars that don’t have tailpipes, battery electric cars, simply cannot have this problem.  There’s no fudging on the emissions test for a battery electric car, because those cars simply do not have tailpipes.  The other thing we as individuals need to do is to step up our buying of electric cars.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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