5 Useful Lessons from the VW Scandal

Clearing the Air on Volkswagen’s diesel debacle

You’ve probably heard by now that beginning in 2009, Volkswagen decided to secretly equip its diesel automobiles with emission control devices designed to operate only when the automobiles were being tested. This incredible deception allowed the German automaker to claim that its diesel cars were fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and also fun to drive. Over the next six years, VW would sell 11 million diesel automobiles worldwide, including nearly 500,000 in the United States.

On September 18, just two months after it had reached the pinnacle of global automobile sales, VW admitted that it had knowingly cheated on emissions tests and that its automobiles, under normal road conditions, were emitting levels of nitrogen oxides 10 to 40 times higher than the limits set under law.

This scandal has adversely impacted our health and could undermine the future of diesel automobiles both in the United States and abroad. It also has lessons to teach us about diesel – a resource that can work for good and bad.

1. What did VW do?

Emission control devices in VW diesel cars were programmed with an algorithm that could detect the differences between laboratory and road conditions. When the system detected laboratory conditions, the devices switched on. When it detected road conditions, they switched off. The equipment was deliberately designed to “defeat” the purpose of the emission regulations.

For more, see: “The VW scandal – the unanswered questions,” BBC, September 30, 2015.

2. Why did VW do it?

VW’s most immediate concern was that it wasn’t keeping up: the emission control devices it used in its diesel automobiles did not capture sufficient levels of nitrogen oxides to meet United States emissions standards. The technology existed which would meet those standards – and keep our air clean – a technology that breaks down the nitrogen oxides into harmless oxygen and hydrogen. But VW decided it would be too expensive and would also require additional maintenance and care, which customers might find burdensome.

When active, the emissions controls VW decided to use would reduce fuel efficiency and hamper the automobile’s acceleration and responsiveness – taking the “fun” out of driving.

For more, see “Testing Times,” Nature, September 29, 2015,

3. How did VW get caught?

VW’s deceptive scheme began to unravel in 2014, following road tests conducted by a small research team from the University of West Virginia’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions. The cars being tested travelled through Oregon as they headed up Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and Seattle. While the team found that the BMW X5 passed, the VWs spewed levels of nitrogen oxides that not only bore little resemblance to the laboratory tests but also exceeded EPA’s maximum allowable levels by 10 to 40 percent. When asked to explain the discrepancy, VW first contended it must be due to testing anomalies. More than a year later, and only after EPA threatened not to certify 2016 VW diesel automobiles for sale in the United States, did VW confess to its misdeeds.


4. What are the health risks?

The precise health risks created by VW’s deception are not easy to assess, but we know the risks of unregulated diesel emissions: Particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (which, in the presence of sunlight and heat, create smog) have longed been linked to a broad range of serious illnesses that include asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and cancer. That’s why OEC is working to combat diesel pollution all across Oregon.

The soot and gases released from diesel tailpipes include a cocktail of 40 hazardous air pollutants like benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde. These carcinogens and other air toxics can harm the brain, lungs and heart. In addition to harming our health, diesel engines emit black carbon, a potent global warming pollutant. Even without the unrecorded pollution from VW’s diesel cars and trucks, we know that 17 Oregon counties have diesel pollution at levels that are considered harmful. In fact, Multnomah County ranks 4th in concentration of diesel exhaust among all counties in the U.S., higher than Los Angeles, the Bronx and Jersey City. Even more alarming, 96% of Oregonians will have elevated cancer risk from diesel in their lifetime.

By some rough estimates, VW’s “clean diesel” automobiles may have spewed an additional 40,000 to 50,000 tons of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere over the United States and may be responsible for up to 120 premature deaths in the United States between 2009 and 2015. By comparison, a similar number of deaths resulted from ignition defects in General Motors automobiles, which caused one of the largest recalls in history.

For more, see: Margo Sanger-Katz and John Schwartz, “How many deaths did VW’s deception cause in the US,” The New York Times, September 28, 2015,

5. What’s the fallout?

Clearly, living up to the promise of clean driving matters. Within days after the scandal broke, VW’s stock plummeted by more than 30%, lowering the automaker’s value from $38 to $27 billion. And the company’s financial woes are just beginning. In the United States, VW could be fined up to $37,000 for each automobile in violation of the law, which would add up to more than $18 billion. Other countries, including France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, and Spain, have launched investigations that could result in additional fines and penalties.

VW has set aside billions to make the technical fixes necessary to make truly cleaner diesel engines, but the “fix” could take more than a year to complete and will require both new software and hardware. Yet, no matter how long it takes and how many apologizes VW makes, none of this will be easy and many questions remain – not only about the performance of the cars, but more importantly whether they will be able to run cleanly without putting out more deadly pollution and risking more lives. The scandal is far from over.

For more, see: “A mucky business,” The Economist, September 26, 2015,

The VW scandal will undoubtedly reduce the sale of diesel vehicles. Yet all is not lost for diesel engines: Technical experts have shown us that advances in technology make it possible for diesel cars, trucks and buses to operate superbly without damaging the environment and jeopardizing public health.

The lessons to be learned from VW’s diesel scandal are as broad and deep as the scandal itself. In an age that sings the praises of deregulation, the scandal serves as an important reminder of how important rigorous, independent and verifiable regulation is for the economy, the environment and public health. Customers have a right to know what they are buying and we all have a right to know that the products being sold do not pose a risk to our environment and health.

The VW scandal reminds us that environmental laws and regulations are only as effective as the enforcement that follows their enactment. We can’t ignore the fact that it was a small research team with a $50,000 grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), not the US EPA with its $8 billion annual budget, that uncovered the deception. Regulations protecting us from pollution are far from perfect. That’s why state agencies – and state laws – play such a critical role in protecting us from dangerous emissions. EPA sets the standards but it’s up to states like Oregon (with the help of nonprofit organizations and universities) to ensure that the regulations are being met.

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