Volkswagen scandal: how two campaigners exposed the world's biggest car company
Peter Mock and John German never intended to spark a huge crisis in the motor industry
Published 23/09/2015 | 07:20
WHEN transport campaigners Peter Mock and John German began testing US car emissions early in 2014 it was with the sole intention of proving to Europe that it was possible to make clean diesels.
America had seemingly cracked the dirty fuel conundrum, its cars effortlessly passing pollution checks that were far stricter than across the Atlantic.
So enlisting the help of the West Virginia University, Mock and German, decided to drive a number of models 1,300 miles from San Diego to Seattle to show that emission-busting technology need not impact performance.
But when the results came back they made no sense. Despite sailing through lab tests, the Volkswagens were pumping out dangerous levels of toxins, some 35 times higher than the legal limit.
The pair had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the biggest automotive scandals in recent years.
Far from producing cleaner cars, Volkswagen was systematically rigging tests using ‘defeat’ software which switched on fume cleaning technology when checks were carried out.
“We were astounded when we saw the numbers,” said German of the Berlin-based International Council on Clean Transportation. “It was shocking. We thought the vehicles would be clean.
“We need to ask the question, is this happening in other countries and is this happening at other manufacturers?”
On the road the VW Jetta exceeded US nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 35 times. The Passat was up to 20 times higher.
The pair contacted the Californian Air Resource Board and the US Environment Protection Agency who launched an investigation in May 2014.
There followed months of fencing by Volkswagen who insisted on repeating the tests themselves and claimed that the figures were the result of minor discrepancy software error which could be fixed easily with a recall.
It wasn't until the EPA and the CARB threatened to withhold certification for its 2016 diesel models that Volkswagen admitted its wrongdoing in early September.
CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said: “Our goal now is to ensure that the affected cars are brought into compliance, to dig more deeply into the extent and implications of Volkswagen’s efforts to cheat on clean air rules, and to take appropriate further action.”
Chief Executive Office Martin Winterkorn said he was ‘deeply sorry’ to have broken the trust of customers and the public.
"Millions of people across the world trust our brands, our cars and our technologies," he said in a video message. "I am endlessly sorry that we have disappointed this trust.”
Initially some 482,000 cars were recalled in the US including the VW Golf, Beetle and Passat and the Audi A3. But on Tuesday the crisis deepened further as Volkswagen admitted that the suspect software had actually been built into 11 million cars, which had been sold worldwide since 2009.
"Further internal investigations have shown that the software concerned is also installed in other diesel vehicles," VW said in a statement.
"Anomalies have shown up in around 11 million cars worldwide.”
The world’s biggest car-maker is now facing billions in fines, a 6.5 billion Euro clean-up operation and the possibility of jail for its chief executives after the US Justice Department launched a criminal investigation. But it is in Europe not America where the real crisis is unfolding.
The scandal has levelled a heavy blow against German pride in both its industrial prowess and its "green" credentials. Until last Friday the Volkswagen brand was a hallmark of German reliability and engineering prowess.
What began as a small company tasked with building an affordable ‘people’s car’ in Hitler’s Germany, came to symbolise the country’s post-war regeneration.
But in less than a week the ‘Made in Germany’ label appears forever tarnished. Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the entire reputation of the car industry is at risk.
Shares have tumbled for many German car manufacturers such as BMW which saw 5.4 per cent wiped off its market value. Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, also dropped 6.5 percent.
"Made in Germany is quality and trust. Now that trust is lost," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer of the University of Duisburg-Essen.
"No one could have imagined the scale of this and the damage it will cause for German industry will go on and on. This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Germany has launched a widespread investigation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for ‘full transparency’ from Volkswagen.
German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt said he was setting up a commission to determine whether the VW diesel vehicles were built and examined in a way that complied with German and European rules.
London City firm Bernstein predicted that the crisis could end the era of diesel altogether.
Analyst Max Warburton said: “The move against VW is going to act as a catalyst to speed up the fall in diesel market share in Europe and halt it in the US.
“In fact, regulators will now be much more conservative about what they permit and much tougher real world tests may prove either too difficult – or too expensive – for diesel to meet.”
Volkswagen emissions scandal
*What has VW done?
The company has falsified emissions data on its vehicles in the US, pretending its cars were cleaner than they are
*How did they do it?
By installing a piece of software into computers on its cars that recognise when the car is being tested – a so-called "defeat device". This fine-tunes the engine’s performance to limit nitrogen oxide emissions. When used on the road, the emissions levels shoot back up
*How widespread is the problem?
Regulators say 482,000 diesel cars were sold in the US from 2008 to 2015 with emissions certificates based on this faulty information
*Which models are involved?
The allegations, which have been admitted by VW, cover the Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3 and Golf models from 2009 to 2015 and the Passat in 2014 and 2015
*Is it just VW doing this?
A US investigation has been widened to other car manufacturers as campaigners warned that the practice was likely to be widespread across the industry