The long read: The Dieselgate scandal was suppressed for years while we should have been driving electric cars
John German had not been looking to make a splash when he commissioned an examination of pollution from diesel cars back in 2013. The exam compared what came out of their exhaust pipes, during the lab tests that were required by law, with emissions on the road under real driving conditions. German and his colleagues at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in the US just wanted to tie up the last loose ends in a big report, and thought the research would give them something positive to say about diesel. They might even be able to offer tips to Europe from the USs experience in getting the dirty fuel to run a little cleaner.
But that was not how it turned out. They chose a Volkswagen Jetta as their first test subject, and a VW Passat next. Regulators in California agreed to do the routine certification test for them, and the council hired researchers from West Virginia University to then drive the same cars through cities, along highways and into the mountains, using equipment that tests emissions straight from the cars exhausts.
It was clear right away that something was off. At first, German wondered if the cars might be malfunctioning, and he asked if a dashboard light had come on. That didnt really make sense, though the cars had just passed the California regulators test. His partners thought there might be a problem with their equipment, and they recalibrated it again and again. But the results didnt change. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution from the Jettas tailpipe was 15 times the allowed limit, shooting up to 35 times under some conditions; the Passat varied between five and 20 times the limit. German had been around the auto industry all his life, so he had a pretty good idea what was going on. This had to be a defeat device a deliberate effort to evade the rules.
It was just so outrageous. If they were like three to five times the standards, you could say: Oh, maybe theyre having much higher NOx emissions because of the high loads, or some other external factor. But when its 15 to 30 times the standards, there is no other explanation, he says. Its a malfunction or its a defeat device. Theres nothing else that could possibly get anywhere close.
German wasnt ready to level such a serious accusation against a huge company such as Volkswagen, so he kept quiet while the research moved forward. Much later, his boss was surprised to learn how early he had suspected the truth. He said: You knew there was a defeat device? Why didnt you tell me? The answer was simple. Were an $8m organisation. VW could have squashed us like a bug.
German and his colleagues pressed ahead with their work and, when the study was finished, they posted it online. That was May 2014. He was still nervous, so the council didnt issue a press release, nor did the report name the manufacturer. As a courtesy, he sent a copy to someone he knew at Volkswagen, noting by the way, Vehicles A and B are yours. Germans group also forwarded the findings to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Californias Air Resources Board (Carb). We were definitely scared. We wanted EPA and Carb to take over. After the results were posted, he would email the agencies now and then. No one replied, and having spent more than 13 years at the EPA himself, he knew what that meant.
The regulators were investigating. And while they struggled to determine what was causing the discrepancy between pollution in the lab and on the road, Volkswagen executives quietly debated their next move. After months of foot-dragging, Volkswagen promised to remedy the problem, which it blamed on a technical glitch. It began recalling cars, updating the software in hundreds of thousands of them.
Months later, California ran new tests. Emissions were still far over the limit. Now regulators wanted to see the software controlling the vehicles pollution systems. And they made an extraordinary threat to get it: if Volkswagen did not turn over the code, it would not get the approvals it needed to sell cars in California and a dozen states that used its standards. The EPA threatened to withhold certification for the entire US market. That, German says, was when VW came clean.
Dieselgate, as it became known, exploded into one of the biggest corporate scandals in history. Over almost a decade, Volkswagen acknowledged, it had embedded defeat devices in 11m cars, mostly in Europe, but about 600,000 in the US. The software detected when emissions tests were being run, and pollution controls components inside the engine that reduce emissions, sometimes at the expense of performance or fuel consumption worked fine under those circumstances. But outside the lab, the controls were switched off or turned way down, and NOx levels shot up as high as 40 times the legal limit. With mind-boggling gall, Volkswagen had even used the software update it was forced to carry out to improve cars ability to detect when they were being tested.
And, as it turned out, Volkswagen wasnt the only one evading the law. Less flagrantly, but to similar effect, the vast majority of diesel cars were making a mockery of emissions rules. In the wake of the revelations in the US, European governments road-tested other big brands too. In Germany, testers found all but three of 53 models exceeded NOx limits, the worst by a factor of 18. In London, the testing firm Emissions Analytics found 97% of more than 250 diesel models were in violation; a quarter produced NOx at six times the limit. As the data kept coming in, our jaws just kept dropping. Because it is just so systematic, and so widespread, German says. VW isnt even in the worst half of the manufacturers. With a few honourable exceptions, everybodys doing it.
In the US, where only around 2% of cars are diesel, the rule-breaking had an impact. But the health consequences have been far more severe in Europe, where drivers had been encouraged for years to buy diesel cars when the scandal broke, they accounted for more than half of all sales. In 2015 alone, one study found that failure to comply with the rules caused 6,800 early deaths. To put it more plainly, tens of thousands of people had died because carmakers felt so free, for so long, to flout the law.
Of course, the painful light cast by the scandal didnt just expose corporate wrongdoing. It also made visible a failure that is just as distressing. Across Europe, including in Britain, governments responsible for enforcing the law and protecting their peoples health had utterly neglected to do so. The fact of the matter, German explained to me, is that European air quality regulators dont have the muscle or the resources their US counterparts have long possessed. European countries have never built the enforcement capability needed to give teeth to pollution rules. Governments, he says, dont seem to be able to do anything about it, in most cases dont even seem to want to do anything.
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