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The diesel dilemma

September 22, 2015

There are many ways to look at Volkswagen’s emissions problem. The easy thing is to point fingers at the auto maker, which willingly admitted that it rigged its software in order to pass emissions controls set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These actions marked testing of diesel-powered VWs from 2009 through the current selling year. Now the probe has been amended to include close to 11 million cars worldwide, not the sub-500,000 originally thought by EPA.

As for me, every time I’ve driven a VW diesel for road-test purposes, I’ve wondered at the difference between EPA mileage figures and what I achieved in the real world of driving short and long distances. The federal numbers were always significantly lower than what I achieved over the road. I figured that VW had to adjust its cars to meet the EPA tests and that the manner in which real people drive is significantly different than what the EPA laboratory tests are rigged to determine.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s horrible that we’ve got more particulates in the air because of VW’s software adjustments for EPA testing. It’s not the right thing to do and Volkswagen, through its CEO Martin Winterkorn, has said as much. He’s fallen on the sword for this large company and, while no prices have been set to punish the Volkswagen for its software adjustments, there will be fines and they will be severely large.

One thing that makes me happy is that VW immediately fessed up, much as GM CEO Mary Barra has done with that behemoth’s ignition switch scandal. This is something new in the secretive corporate world and one that needs to be followed by all large companies, both here in the United States and throughout the world. If you say, “We made a mistake,” it’s a heck of a lot better than telling tales; this way no further stories need to be written to justify the ones that came before.

Although I don’t know much about software rigging, I’m pretty darn certain that whatever computer analyses VW has done in order to meet EPA – and other – strictures in laboratory testing are far more modern than what this government agency is using. The EPA, like most US governmental groups is a bloated pig with little of modern substance behind it.

I’m thinking the computers and software available to VW are lightyears beyond what EPA uses; as well, the testing demanded by EPA itself has little to do with real-world experience and really never has. The culture at EPA and other agencies of its ilk has to change to reflect the outside world. Until that happens, auto and truck makers will continue to deceive our government, and others around the world.

The shame and horror for enthusiasts like myself who prefer to drive fun diesel cars is the lack of availability. I also wonder how many consumers, now accustomed to great fun and mileage with their diesel machines, will ignore any edict to return their vehicles for servicing or, worse, for exchange to gasoline- or hybrid-powered Volkswagens.

VW does have a hybrid available in its four-door, front-wheel-drive Jetta model. I drove one of these to Sonoma and back last year and enjoyed it – but not as much as I like the torque monster that the VW TDI is, in all of its entities: Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat. Perhaps, like the EU we should live in a real world where diesel is accepted as maybe not the cleanest type of fuel – it never has been – but as an option for those that wish to drive one for mileage purposes, if nothing more.

And now we’re just waiting for another shoe to drop, since Winterkorn admitted the software issue  isn’t limited to US testing. VW’s stock is dropping faster than a waterfall over the Niagaras while vultures like FCA wait in the wings, perhaps to scoop it up? But what of other manufacturers that bring their diesel products to the United States and elsewhere? I’d be surprised if other turbodiesel products haven’t had similar software engineering. Did VW just get caught first?

By Anne Proffit

(This is an opinion piece – no surmises are made about the veracity of EPA, VW or other diesel manufacturers)

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  1. Anne, I understand that you cannot help being a bit biased when they’ve always treated so well, but what VW did was a bit more egregious than a simple “mistake”. They specifically rigged their software to recognize when it was being tested and click into test mode, then go back to pumping out 40 times the limit of pollutants. That’s being an enemy of the planet and they are going to suffer in a big way and deservedly so.

    • It was a horrid thing to do, for sure and as the week has gone on, Steve, we’re discovering more and more about their rigging of software. That they could easily do it is part of the problem – our agencies didn’t check very well and it took people outside our governmental agencies to make the discovery. As for the amount of pollutants, they spiked at 40X over the limit but were customarily lower than that… that doesn’t excuse VW from their crime of rigging software but it was not a continual 40X – and man, I loved driving those VW diesels on long trips.

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