How Could Volkswagen's Top Engineers Not Have Known?
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 26 - November 01, 2015
How could Volkswagen's top engineers not have known?
Dune Lawrence, Ben Elgin, and Vernon Silver

For the gearheads at West Virginia University, it was a minor commission. An environmental group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, had asked the school’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions to test the tailpipes of diesel cars in the U.S., such as those sold by Volkswagen and BMW. Studies suggested that automakers’ diesel cars polluted more on the road than in the lab, and curiously, more in Europe than in the U.S. ICCT wanted to figure out what the automakers had done to meet America’s tougher emissions standards and how to repatriate these improvements for European car buyers.

The center, founded in 1989, is based on the rolling WVU campus in the foothills of Appalachia and occupies a warehouse-like space full of young men in T-shirts and jeans fiddling with jury-rigged equipment—and it smells like a gas station. Run by Daniel Carder, a West Virginia native, it mostly tests heavy-duty engines for trucks and locomotives. Taking sleek passenger cars on a road trip was a novelty. One student at the lab, Marc Besch, thought it sounded interesting and asked to work on the project. Besch grew up in Switzerland, and his family ran a dealership that sold mostly Opels, a German competitor to Volkswagen.

There was one problem: Carder, Besch, and their team couldn’t find any diesel cars in West Virginia. So they plotted test routes in California, where lots of consumers have bought into the marketing promise of “clean diesel,” which touts remarkable fuel efficiency without sacrificing muscular acceleration. Out west, they could also use the California Air Resources Board’s dynamometers, the hulking apparatuses used to measure the exhaust coming out of a stationary car.

From February through April 2013, they tested three diesel cars: a Volkswagen Jetta, a Volkswagen Passat, and a BMW SUV. Besch took charge of the initial assessment, using the dynos, and he was impressed. The cars emitted almost nothing, prompting some crowing from Besch about European engineering. When Besch’s fellow investigator, Arvind Thiruvengadam, joined him to take the cars on the road, however, the results were different. The road tests captured a variety of conditions: high elevations up Mt. Baldy; stop-and-go urban errand-running in San Diego; freeway driving around Los Angeles. The two Volkswagens’ emissions exceeded standards by 5 to 35 times. The BMW’s didn’t.

First, they assumed the results were wrong, so the team recalibrated the instruments and kept on driving. Eventually they realized that, yes, they were seeing something noteworthy, if not exactly shocking. What comes out of a tailpipe on the road is always going to differ somewhat from regulatory targets met in tightly controlled environments. Speed, elevation, and temperature all affect the result. To isolate the cause, Besch pored over a two-part paper, published by Volkswagen’s top engineers in 2008, that described purportedly groundbreaking emissions control achieved by the new TDI 2.0 liter engine. And he pursued a theory related to the exhaust filtering system. He still couldn’t explain the full extent of the emissions.

On March 31, 2014, Besch, Carder, and the rest of the WVU researchers presented their findings in San Diego, at the most important conference in the car-exhaust field, the Real World Emissions Workshop. They didn’t name which cars they’d tested, but the technical specs and use of the Lean NOx capture system meant it could only be a Volkswagen.

Sitting in the audience was Jens Borken-Kleefeld, who studies emissions at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. He’d made the trip for the same reason ICCT had commissioned its study: to understand why the diesel technologies seemed to be cleaner in the U.S. than in Europe. BorkenKleefeld says the U.S. audience seemed to miss the significance of the findings. “For me, it was a big deal,” he says. “I was expecting to see ‘clean diesel’—and I realized that on the other side of the pond, it’s the same technology and the same underperformance.” U.S. regulators were also in the room, and BorkenKleefeld recalls approaching some of them. “They shrugged their shoulders,” he says. “I don’t know what they knew at the time—seeing and realizing is different.”

Volkswagen, at least, took note. Someone from VW got in touch with the team to get more details. Carder tried to get Volkswagen interested in a follow-up study with more cars, but it never happened. Early this year, engineers from VW’s Oxnard (Calif.) test facility called to discuss the routes WVU used. (Besch declined to provide names of the engineers.) And that was pretty much it. Which was normal—carmakers regularly learn of emissions problems from researchers and quietly make fixes. “We didn’t hear anything more from them, so we fully assumed that they had made some recalls,” says Carder. “We didn’t even talk to our friends at [California] ARB to follow up on it. That’s really how confident we were that they’d have fixed this, that it was going to be a nonissue.”

What the West Virginia team didn’t realize was that they’d exposed one of the biggest deceptions in the history of the auto industry. On Sept. 3, 2015, VW admitted to U.S. and California regulators that it had not only been selling high-polluting cars but that it had deliberately outfitted them with “defeat devices” that sensed when an official emissions test was under way and temporarily trapped the worst of the exhaust—chemicals that contribute to smog and acid rain.

“Device,” actually, is something of a misnomer. The cheat is merely several lines of software code in the computer that controls a Volkswagen’s engine and exhaust systems. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, when the car detects a test—certain steering patterns; speed; barometric pressure; only two wheels spinning instead of four—it switches into a cleaner mode called “dyno calibration,” after the testing machines. The cars can run cleaner, but they can’t run cleaner without sacrificing fuel efficiency or some of the engine’s power.

The FBI has opened a criminal probe, and an investigation by the EPA could result in as much as $18 billion in penalties, compounding the immediate loss of tens of billions of dollars in Volkswagen’s market value. On Oct. 8, more than 50 German police and prosecutors raided Volkswagen facilities and employees’ homes at dawn. VW plans to recall 11 million cars and is bracing for class actions from consumers who paid a premium for what they were led to believe was a more efficient and environmentally friendly ride. To raise the funds the company will need to pay all the costs associated with the scandal, several industry analysts foresee VW selling off one or more of its 12 brands, such as Bentley, the British racing-turned-luxury sedan manufacturer, which has struggled recently, or Ducati, the Italian motorcycle maker.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

De-radicalizing the Extremists

Parents for Peace enlists ex-believers to help families win back loved ones drawn to Islamism, QAnon, and other ideologies. Demand has never been higher

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Europe's Energy Crisis Is Coming for The Rest of Us

Millions of people around the globe will feel the impact of soaring natural gas prices this winter

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 04, 2021

Big Sky's Moment of Glory

The most rugged resort in Montana gets speedy lifts, luxury hotels, and fine dining to match its extreme slopes

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Black Hairstyles Need Protection

In most U.S. states, employers and schools are allowed to discriminate against box braids, locs, and other traditional styles. A coalition of activists and legislators has started to change that.

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

High Stakes On the Lake

Justin Bibb wants to be Cleveland’s next mayor. If he beats Kevin Kelley, he’ll inherit serious problems—and a windfall to fix them

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Can twitter get us to be nice?

Social networks are all designed to make people angry and keep them coming back for more. Now, one of the worst offenders is trying to be less of a hellscape

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Let's Make Covid Testing Part of Our Morning Routine

A Harvard immunologist champions low-cost, at-home rapid tests to beat the pandemic

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Homeopath, heal thyself

Natalie Grams believed—really believed—in the healing power of homeopathy. Then a health crisis of her own forced the German physician to question her faith

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

Stuck on the Sidelines of The U.S. Job Market

Conversations with some of the 5 million out-of-work Americans shed light on why so many jobs are going begging

8 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021

The Hunt for the Most Lucrative Patients

Privately run Medicare Advantage programs get paid more when members look sicker—even if they don’t receive more care

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 18 - 25, 2021
RELATED STORIES

WHY THE CP4.2 FAILS

AND HOW YOU CAN KEEP YOURS OFF THE SCRAP PILE

2 mins read
Diesel World
November 2021

CUMMINS R2.8 POWER FOR VW 4X4 VAN?

I’m a big fan and love watching your show. I have an interesting vehicle that you may be interested to learn more about. I believe it’s one of the better platforms to build an adventure vehicle. It’s an ’88 Volkswagen LT 4x4 with a 2.4L turbodiesel engine and Hurth axles with front and rear locking differentials. Earlier models used Dana 60s, and much of the platform is very similar to older American trucks.

6 mins read
Four Wheeler
October 2021

Reason for Hope

I feared my son would never get off drugs. Until an art class changed my heart

8 mins read
Guideposts
August/September 2021

2022 Volkswagen GTI

They still do make ’em like they used to

2 mins read
Motor Trend
September 2021

ELECTRIFY AMERICA TO DOUBLE EV CHARGING STATIONS BY 2025

Electrify America, an electric vehicle charging network funded with money paid by Volkswagen as punishment for its emissions cheating scandal, says it plans to more than double its number of charging stations throughout the United States and Canada.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #507

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Drifting a Volkswagen Golf is weird. Like, really weird. The Golf has long been a beacon of front-wheel drive—and FWD-based all-wheel-drive— excellence, but getting its rear to swing wide typically meant yanking a handbrake or getting hit by a dump truck.

2 mins read
Motor Trend
July 2021

Too Little, Too Slow, Too Late Is Not an Option

On climate change, it is a lot later than a lot of us want to admit

6 mins read
Newsweek
May 21 - 28, 2021 (Double Issue)

US Ends Oil, Gas Lease Sales From Public Land Through June

The U.S. Interior Department is cancelling oil and gas lease sales from public lands through June amid an ongoing review of how the program contributes to climate change, officials said.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #495

The Human Side of Fracking

Living with the allure and danger of a lucrative, dirty industry

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
May 2021

LEVERAGE

The Flight of the Omnipresent Red Phin

7 mins read
Drive!
April 2021