The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Volkswagen CEO "Sorry" for Emissions Cheating Software in Huge Car Recall

U.S. regulators may fine Volkswagen billions of dollars after discovering software designed to cheat official emissions testing

2 min read
Volkswagen CEO "Sorry" for Emissions Cheating Software in Huge Car Recall
Photo: iStockphoto

Most smart car features don’t trigger a recall of almost half a million cars and an apology from one of the world’s largest automakers. But last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had discovered a software algorithm designed to help Volkswagen cars cheat on official emissions testing.

The Volkswagen “defeat device” software could detect whenever a car was undergoing official emissions testing and activate emissions controls only during such testing, according to an EPA press release on 18 September. During normal driving operations, the inactivated emissions controls gave the Volkswagen cars better performance at the cost of emitting nitrogen oxides (NOx) at up to 40 times beyond the EPA’s emission standard.

I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” said Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, in a statementWe will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case.”

The emissions-cheating software was found in four-cylinder diesel passenger cars that include the Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3, Golf, and Passat. Discovery of the “defeat device” prompted the EPA to issue a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, described the “defeat device” as “illegal and a threat to public health.” The EPA worked with the California Air Resources Board to investigate the cars after first being alerted by researchers at West Virginia University, working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization.

The stricter emissions regulations that took effect in 2008 have prompted automakers besides Volkswagen to use complex emission-control systems to control nitrous oxide emissions, according to Green Car Reports. Part of those systems includes a separate tank of urea liquid that gets injected into the after-treatment system at certain times.

By comparison, Green Car Reports points out that Volkswagen’s four-cylinder TDI diesel engines were able to meet EPA standards without the urea injection system.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal could cost the automaker billions of dollars in fines. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an auto industry expert at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, told the New York Times that Volkswagen’s scandal could also damage the reputation of all German automakers which have tried to carve a foothold in the United States market for diesel engines.

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

Keep Reading ↓Show less