Is Volkswagen the Only One?

An algo did it to Volkswagen AG. It wasn’t the algo of some evil stock-market manipulator, but of the company itself, a devious secret piece of software, a “defeat device,” as the EPA called it, purposefully coded by the company’s engineers and part of the software that governs its 4-cylinder turbodiesel engines in Volkswagen and Audi cars from the model years 2009 through 2015.

It was designed so that these cars, about 482,000 of them, which the company touted as “clean diesels,” would violate US law and deceive consumers with impunity.

But Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker in the first half of 2015, had the bad luck of getting caught. The scandal broke Friday afternoon, when the EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) revealed that the vehicle control systems contained code – the “defeat device” – that shut down the emission control system during regular driving, but turned it back on as soon as the algo noticed that the car was plugged into an emissions testing machine.

The purpose of the algo was to conceal emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to the creation of ozone and smog that can trigger severe health problems, such as respiratory diseases, and premature death. Emission of nitrogen oxide is one of the big issues of diesel engines. The EPA found that during normal driving, the vehicles emitted up to 40 times the allowable levels.

How did the EPA find out? Bureaucratic excellence? Hardly. The Detroit News:

The VW emissions issue came to the attention of EPA in 2014 after independent analysis by researchers at West Virginia University, working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization, raised questions about emissions levels.

Motive? Disabling the emission controls likely improved acceleration and fuel economy, and the engines might run less hot and thus be more durable.

The scandal metastasized from “alleged” to “publicly admitted” on Sunday when Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn said in a statement that the Board “takes these findings very seriously.” Findings, not allegations. Here’s his mea culpa:

I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.

That “external investigation” is the coming Winterkorn whitewash, according to my hunch. He added with dripping irony, “We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law,” after having admitted to having violated US law since model year 2009 (which came out in 2008).

“This matter has first priority for me, personally, and for our entire Board of Management,” he said.

I bet! Earlier this year, he’d survived a fierce power struggle with Ferdinand Piëch, chairman of Volkswagen’s supervisory board and an offspring of the Porsche family that has dominated the company. In the end, Piëch was forced out. Winterkorn triumphed.

But now he’s in trouble: Either he knew about the scam, in which case he is up to his nostrils in it, though he will forever deny it; or he didn’t know about it, in which case he has lost control of what’s going on at the company.

The EPA, CARB, and the Justice Department are working together on this investigation. It could get expensive: the Justice Department could hit Volkswagen with up to $37,500 in fines for each car sold, or about $18 billion in total.

The company has ordered dealers to halt sales of model-year 2015 and 2016 cars equipped with this type of turbodiesel, along with used cars with those engines. But these cars make up about 20% to 25% of Volkswagen’s already struggling sales in the US.

Within the first two hours of trading in Frankfurt today, Volkswagen shares plunged 23%, when bottom fishers jumped into the fray. The shares closed at €132.20, down 19% for the day. In early April, before German stocks began their trip toward a bear market, Volkswagen shares were trading at €253, now having crashed 48% in five months.

How long did the company think it could keep this secret algo secret? Or the more pressing question: why did it take regulators so long to catch that fraud? We might never know the answer.

In addition to the problems Volkswagen has had in the US, it is now at risk of becoming a pariah. And it will have to persuade consumers to buy diesels that, with all their emission controls enabled, suddenly offer degraded performance, fuel economy, and durability.

The recall will undo that algo. And those folks who bought these cars some time ago and get that recall done may have a rude awakening.

For Volkswagen, it’s going to be a tough marketing job. And redesigning these diesels in all haste to where they don’t disappoint finicky American consumers is going to be a tough engineering job.

But here is the thing: This isn’t a faulty product, a design flaw, or even gross negligence. And it will be hard for Winterkorn to blame some low-level rogue coder, like banks have blamed rogue traders for their scams. This defeat device is a design, carefully planned and expertly executed – so well that it remained a secret for at least seven model years.

Daimler and BMW, which also sell diesels in the US, are denying that they’ve done the same thing.

Which leads to the broader issue of other algos hidden deep inside financial, commercial, and consumer products that have been designed to deceive and defraud. As the Volkswagen case shows, these things are just too easy to do and devilishly hard to detect. They might fleece customers and businesses for years. And many of them will never be found.

This time, regulators took down one of the largest companies out there. But smaller outfits might never get that kind of professional scrutiny. And they might get away with it, their owners laughing all the way to the bank in this era of the secret algo.

When it comes to German stocks, American investors are on the hook. Read… German Stocks Crush Dream of Central-Bank Omnipotence

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  49 comments for “Is Volkswagen the Only One?

  1. Neil Dunn says:

    Possible Jail time for someone/s , assuming there has been a “felony” committed?. Of course, the EPA should be considering the same punishment for their recent Colorado polluting escapade.

    • The recent EPA release from the Gold King mine was no accident, but rather hardball politics to force San Juan County Commissioners to accept being named as an EPA Superfund Site.

      In today’s world, there are no coincidences or accidents.

  2. Joe Chaisson says:

    It is interesting that this software feature seems to have persisted into the company’s newest generation of 2.0-liter TDI diesels, a heavily revised design known as EA288, which was intended to be fitted with urea aftertreatment systems–which allow other makers to meet the NOx limits under all circumstances and Volkswagen and Audi vehicles equipped with larger TDI diesel engines are not affected. So, it seems that VW could have been offering “legal” TDIs for some time. Perhaps doing this would have exposed the defeat software? As a quite satisfied Jetta TDI owner (so far), I would be more than willing to pay at least another $1000 for a legal TDI as my next car.

    While NOx emissions are important, they are substantially less serious for human health than small particulates – which are not at issue – in part due to our conversion to low-sulfur diesel. It also appears that VW was also caught needing the TDI’s fuel efficiency to meet US auto fleet fuel economy standards – which is in my view essentially a green pressured policy on autopilot in search of a rationale today..

    Given that the new 2.0 generation was redesigned to use SCR, not following through would seem to imply high-level management awareness that VW had spun a tangled web and now was caught up in it…

  3. Vespa P200E says:

    I used to own 2 2011 Audi A3 TDIs. Sold 1 last year with 75k miles and teenage daughter drives bright red 1. Awesome torque and 42 MPG often on cheaper diesel.

    3 of 4 cars I rented in EU last year were Volkwagen Audi diesels with 2 liter engines and manual transmission. Managed to get 45 MPG on Audi A4 over 1500 mile thru expressways, traffic jams and climbing Alps twice.

    What really gets me is the EPA goons demanding fine of $37k per car or $18 bil. Compare this to Government Motor fine of $1.2 bil for killing 174 people and Toyota $1.5 bil for killing 5 people. VW on the other hand killed NO one other than spewing more NOx.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      NOx pollution has killed lots of people. Of course, Volkswagen vehicles are only a small contributor to the problem. But pollutants coming out of combustion engines are not just air decoration. They’re deadly. Hence emission controls. So that we can all live longer healthier lives.

    • Gaslark says:

      Seems to me that the problem is that Government Motor and Toyota did not get hit hard enough, not that $18 Billion is too much punishment for Volkswagen. I see no way to spin this as anything but criminal.

      No doubt the company will contribute to some political PAC’s and get their fine much reduced.

      Of course, your point of view is made clear by the phrase “EPA goons”, so I doubt I would agree with you in any case…

    • Darryn says:

      This is a deliberate occurrence of deceiving emission regulation and consumers, which could have more deadly consequences that wasn’t considered before. The increase emission of NOx has been linked to causing cancer.

  4. Mark says:

    Shame. Just wonder if some of us have cheated on government for so long what would be fine for us. Jail!

  5. AC says:

    I see a nice cottage industry opportunity for installing the old test-defeating software on new VW vehicles, going forward.

    • roddy6667 says:

      Not just VW vehicles. Anything that has to go through emissions testing could benefit from a few lines of code.

      • d says:

        The more you talk about this the more you enforce the argument for more random roadside emission testing.

        Most modified vehicles these days, are also “Code” modified. The code is out you cant get it back.

        People have been disconnecting emission control devices, since there have been emission devices.

        After the VW investigation is over, the person who inserted the algo at VW, will be found and tagged as committing a rouge unauthorized act. He is probably dead, VW will pay and walk.

        Corporates do this all the time FX, LIBOR, SIBOR, Front running, Multiple GM safety issues, Etc, Etc, When there is a fuss like this VW issue, there is a Human Sacrifice or two, then everything goes back to normal.


  6. night-train says:

    EPA, damed if it does, damed if it don’t. I have been a long time supporter of EPA, having been a young college student when Nixon created the agency and have lived long enough to see serious improvement in the overall environment in my home area. But a more thankless job never existed, perhaps other than headsman for the king. Whatever they do never plays well in Peoria. Either they shouldn’t have done it, or they over did it, or didn’t do enough, or didn’t do it quickly enough. Was once recruited for a job there. Had to decline due to low pay and proclivity to tell folks where to stick it when all they have to offer is non-constructive criticism .

    BTW, I expect the Colorado mine tailings pond release to have a greater political impact than an environmental one. Anxious to see up-stream samples compared to those collected down-stream. The actual visibility of the plume indicates that much of the material was in suspension and little may have actually been deposited accept in areas of slow – no flow where there was time for material to settle. That will make delineation of any contamination and potential remediation relatively simple.

  7. unit472 says:

    My guess is that VW’s ‘recall’ will be met with the sound of crickets as owners will not want their cars ‘fixed’. I learned about recalls the hard way when I had to have the gas tank removed on my Nissan Titan to fix a warning light on the dash. Later on my Mazda I got a recall notice saying that my tire pressure system warning light wouldn’t work if all four tires were underinflated! GMAFB! That notice went into the garbage!

    VW’s crime was trying to avoid conforming with administrative laws written by econuts not automotive engineers. Given a choice most car owners would prefer optimum performance over optimum emission controls. There is a reason people buy turbodiesels and making CARB happy is not one of them.

    • Jim Levitt says:

      Of course, if given a choice, the car owners would prefer optimum performance over optimum emission controls. But the rest of us – those who don’t own those cars – would have to breathe the pollutants those cars emit. The logic of your position is that there would be no restrictions on auto emissions. Nor would mufflers be required, as, once again, “car owners would prefer optimum performance” over those pesky noise restrictions. Sorry, not the kind of society I want to live in.

    • Gaslark says:

      There is some discussion, at least here in California about compelling owners to comply with the recall. This is per the Los Angeles Times “Will California DMV act to ensure drivers comply with VW recall?” Sept 22. It is being proposed by activists that the DMV refuse to renew registration on these vehicles unless they comply with the recall.

      VW’s crime was to make their product outperform rivals by cheating on regulations. It was purely criminal, and cannot be excused nor waved away as a misunderstanding.

      Since I live in a place where air quality was horrible and is now noticeably better it is my observation that this particular regulation makes sense.

  8. MARK says:

    I personally like the smell of Ozone, it smells like a fresh lightening strike.

    • Nick says:

      A funny thing about Ozone, it stays close to the Earth’s surface, hence in Cities with congested traffic, you literally can’t escape the gas cloud produced by thousands (or even millions) of vehicles. Local geographical features (such as valleys or mountain ranges) increase the magnitude of concentrations. Ozone is also a leading cause of cancer, respiratory and heart diseases.

  9. d says:

    Now test all other vehicles for simular.

    Notice that the fines for VW Audi are huge as they are not a US company, whereas Government Motors, the O bummer voter pet, a continual safety violator receives fines that are a slap on the wrist, for its continuous violations.

    The O bummer Protectionist EPA at work, just like the BP deal the EPA oversaw, which was supposed to, and may still, put BP, a non American oil company, into Bankruptcy, and destroy it.

    Whereas Exon basically walked over the Valdez disaster and still hasn’t paid all of then fines.

    Protectionism and selective enforcement alive and well in the US.

    • night-train says:

      d: Don’t you think the Exxon Valdez tanker and the BP Deep Water Horizon blowout were different orders of magnitude in both terms of environmental damage and negligence? I haven’t captained a tanker, but I have drilled a few O&G wells. The operator of the well calls the shots. BP was negligent far beyond the inactions of one bad tanker captain. And people died from their negligence. I’m no fan of Exxon/Mobil and I hope any outstanding fines will be collected.

      • d says:

        Yes they were.

        However the EPA and the US courts, did not set out to Bankrupt Exxon.

        It is their intention to Bankrupt BP, as it is not an American company.

        BP has already paid more in fraudulent compensation claims, than Exon was fined, yet the US courts show no interest in arresting this fraud.

        When the US courts start acting in national Economic interests, and not those of balanced Justice,there are big Issues to address.

        America complains. American companies, do not get justice in chinese courts, yet foreign companies, do not get balanced justice in US courts either.

        1 rule for the US and its companies, and several others, for several others, is what appears to be the case, and the issue.

  10. Les Francis says:

    Interestingly German cars use ignition and fuel injection systems mostly designed by Bosch e.g. WMB – MB – Audi – VW plus a whole raft of other manufacturers including US and other Euro makes.

    Euro manufacturers design their vehicles however a lot of parts are made by OEM companies while other parts are picked off the shelf from companies – like Bosch, VDO etc. More like assemblers of sourced plus your own parts.
    It makes economic sense to do so.

    I would be highly surprised if VW ultimately is not the only Euro make caught out.

  11. Nick Kelly says:

    One thing that always struck me about pollution testing: they test the % of the bads not the absolute number. My point is that a small 2 liter engine is ALREADY emitting less than half the pollutants of the typical V-8.
    The small engine manufacturers should press for a real playing field- we care about what you are putting into the air- not how you do it.

  12. jim says:

    I owned a 2001 tdi. it lasted two years. was always in the shop for air mass sensor problems along with throttle body clogging up so bad it would choke the engine. lots of other problems along with lousy service from Portland oregon dealerships. the timing belt broke and the engine blew as deisils do when timing goes out of whack. cost me 2.600.00 to fix it and i only got about 90 miles on rebuild when it blew the timing belt again. this time it destroyed the head and push rods went through the pistons. to this day I feel sorry for the poor bastards I see driving the TDI.s. finally I get to see those mffers in germany suffer.

  13. Julian the Apostate says:

    I have mixed feelings about all of this as well. Diesel manufacturing has been absolutely clocked by the deadlines imposed by the EPA, and I have spent countless hours of downtime in shops because these not ready for prime time systems are thrown on the market with countless bugs in them. This truck I’m driving is the first in years that hasn’t dealt me fits with emission controls. By the same token REAL pollution must be dealt with effectively for the sake of everyone. Seems to me an even hand must apply across the board, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Bureaucrats are not well suited to deal with these problems and it is ironic that this cheat was uncovered by the private sector. VW will have a tough sell for a long while.

    • Joe Chaisson says:

      Not really, this problem was discovered by ICCT (The International Council on Clean Transportation) an environmental advocacy organization funded by the Climate Works, Hewlitt, Packard and Energy Foundations.

  14. peter says:

    This was an excellent explanation of the”defeat device” Rolf.

    I own a 2007 Mercedes R320 CDI and am looking forward to the next 100,000 of driving. This is a heavy 6,400 pound, diesel-powered vehicle, that looks much like a wide-beamed sled. The engine is so silent that you hardly know it is running. Only in the winter do you have to “glow it” before ignition. Has very good pick-up from 0 to 40. You can seat 6 big adults in the vehicle, with all having good leg room. My wife drives it mostly to haul our grandchildren and also her lady friends around to garage sales and meetings. We get 27 MPG at 70 MPH – very acceptable for a heavy vehicle.

    Your readers should understand that German auto makers went full bore some 15 years ago to design passenger vehicles powered with diesel engines. The reason is that diesel fuel is (or was) cheaper than gasoline in Europe (due to different road taxes I believe). In the US, up to about 10 months ago, on-road diesel fuel cost more than 93 octane gasoline. You buy a diesel engine not for cheaper fuel cost, but for much longer endurance and reduced maintenance and repair expenses.

    Until today, I could never imagine that a great car company like VW would purposefully deceive regulators and the general public about the true performance of its engines. This is not an indiscretion. It is blatant fraud. If the other major German automakers are found out to have done the same, the consequences will destroy Germany. Auto and truck manufacturing are the backbone of German industry and commerce.

    • night-train says:

      Peter, back in 1985 I had a client with one of those big Mercedes Sedans (don’t remember the model). He was having to give it to his soon to be ex-wife in a divorce settlement. He decide to trash it first, so he insisted we take it to stake a well location. We went off-roading in that thing. Places a big 4X4 would have had trouble with. That was an experience! Actually, didn’t seem that much worse for the wear, but for some scratches to the finish, most of which would have come out with a little rubbing compound. Thing was built like a tank.

    • Today’s gasoline engines last forever with little maintenance and virtually no repairs. There is no reason to pay the stiff premium for a Diesel engine, more expensive diesel fuel, possible urea after treatment, cold weather problems and severe damage should the timing belt break.

  15. Bobcat says:

    It may be more difficult for the bosses to blame the subordinates (coders) but it’s not impossible. I have utmost faith that they will find a way.

    As soon as tailpipe testing, which was also problematic, stopped and OBD2 based “testing” started, it was only a matter of time before some outfit did this. It was too easy and too tempting. It was fraud waiting to happen. VW got away with it for an embarrassingly long time.

  16. Bazinga says:

    Not 482,000, 11 million:

    Volkswagen Admits ‘Defeat Device’ On 11 Million Engines Worldwide, Sets Aside $7.2B

    • Wolf Richter says:

      The Big S is hitting the fan. I’m waiting for other automakers to get dragged into this. So far, they’ve been denying it. Let’s see how long they can hold out.

      • Xabier says:

        Thank you, Wolf, for pointing out that concern over pollution is not a trivial matter, only for ‘econuts’.

        It is incredible that anyone could hold such a view, but I suspect it is quite widespread.

        Such people should contemplate the phrase ‘silent killer’: and realise that -most probably – it is one heading for them.

        It is also delicious to see the self-righteous captains of German industry squirming. This story will be a delight to follow.

      • Johnf says:

        The News Media is always telling us it is just a few, but it is really all the Corporations are Cheating & committing Fraud & Corruption.

      • Bazinga says:

        VW diesel scandal spreads to Audi, Porsche — and possibly even BMW

        Not VW related, but…

        Hyundai recalls 470,000 Sonatas to replace engines–finance.html

        • d says:

          Citroen, Alfa, fiat, and anybody else who use those components, from the same supplier, will have “Issues” as that code will be in nearly all of them, even if it is not an active line.

          American diesel emission regulations were written to keep European diesels out of the US. This is a witch hunt and a storm in a teacup.

          Want a real Emission issues in the US, look at diesel powered and more importantly Bunker fuel powered ships plying the US coasts, and the world with no emission controls or emission regulations at all.

          VW did something naughty and got caught. The No1 executive has already resigned, (Ie the wright thing has quickly been done) There will be a recall and a settlement.

          This happened as the EPA and its regulations have ceased to be respected and have simply become regulations to be got around from a power-crazed, trade protectionist, abusive state agency.

          This is what happens when state agencys use their powers to protect national manufactures against fair competition, expand their size, and ensure their continuous existence, whilst actually doing little about other important and bigger national issues.

  17. PaulM says:

    “Or the more pressing question: why did it take regulators so long to catch that fraud?”
    This is a foolish question and would only be asked by someone without understanding of regulations and how compliance is determined. Regulators must test in accordance with published procedures for the most obvious reasons. VW ensured their malfeasance would not be revealed during compliance testing or even during random road tests. As it turns out the author answered his own question at a later point in the post; “This defeat device is a design, carefully planned and expertly executed – so well that it remained a secret for at least seven model years.”
    Although unlikely, VW should be hit with the maximum possible fine in order to discourage others from pursuing this type of behaviour.

  18. night-train says:

    I may be about to step in it here, but that has never stopped me before. Since 1980, there has been a policy to beat down and defund regulatory agencies. The private sector would self-regulate and forces within the market place would ultimately regulate the system. Consistently underfund Federal and state regulatory agencies, render them less and less effective and then loudly proclaim their failures, rinse and repeat. The plan has worked well as exemplified by the VW fraud and the tainted peanut butter guy, about to do 28 years in Georgia.

    I am not against capitalism. But it is a system, not religion. It should no be accepted on faith, but through rigorous examination. And when found wanting, problems should be corrected. And to do that, you need an entity with a big stick to keep would be malefactors in line and strong punishments for those who stray. And the only way to do that is with adequately funded regulators. And I know this is a hard pill to swallow for some, but pay for qualified personnel and provide them with the necessary tools to do the job, including continuing education provided by the best available. And then hold them responsible for their performance.

  19. Les Francis says:

    In other news – ex 2014. Major European cities are set to ban diesel cars in a few years. It seems the take off of these diesel powered cars have exponentially increased the pollution levels even with their “allegedly” clean improvements.
    As peter has noted above in his post, the reason for the increase in diesel engines in Europe is more to do with the tax on the fuel and end costs rather than saving the environment.
    During the late eighties / early nineties a better class of diesel fuel with less sulphur was introduced. The older fuel was suitable for trucks and old Mercedes but was more polluting.
    Taxis thorough out Europe, the middle east and Africa were and still are either ancient diesel Mercedes or a newer model with the older engines. You can actually run those old cars on used cooking oil.

  20. Mike says:

    Fact of the matter is this. Their is a very active after-market to defeat diesel emissions for most vehicles now on the road. Very large late-model pickups are all the rage for many early 20 somethings. they dont even call then chevy or ford…It is Cummins, Duramax & Powerstroke. 1st thing they do is remove the diesel exhaust filters, the egr cooling system and install aftermarket software. These vehicles then run like MONSTERS from mars with awesome power and good mileage. This is why people love the VW’s cause they run better. You spend $50K for a truck & egr cooler or diesel exhaust failure ruins your $15K engine, that is a risk they don’t want to take. So VW was just doing from the factory what many people are already doing aftermarket. Personally I’m a mechanic and would never own a diesel. Like a previous poster said gasoline engines now perform as well as diesels at a fraction of the cost-all with LEGAL emissions.

    • d says:

      Diesel fuel is deliberately made expensive with tax in many countries.

      EPA regulations were used by American Truck and Diesel Engine manufacturers to defeat competition from the cleaner running European and Japanese Trucks. Until the development of EMS for Diesels which made European and Japanese Trucks cleaner than US Trucks, across the board.

      The Anticompetetive diesel idle EPA regulations still stand in the US, as American engines are cleaner at idle, but much dirtier under power, than European and Japanese engines..

      Diesel engines were originally designed in the US, to run on Peanut oil.


      BIG “FOSSIL FUEL” OIL in America ,is geared to selling Gasoline, for gas Hogs in the US. And that is what you will buy, because THEY SAY SO.

      All fossil fuel engines are dirty. The EPA and its noise merchants, target different emissions, as it suits then.

      The world actually needs more Sulfur dioxide and Soot emissions and much much less CO2 and methane to stabilize the environment, two major volcanic eruptions in Indonesia proved that. Gasoline engines produce lots of CO2.

      The clean air attack, attacked the wrong substances first, they should first have targeted CO2, CFC’S, and Methane, then soot’s and sulfur.

      They got it wrong, they have overheated the planet, as a result.

      The scape goat is currently the Diesel Engine’s, as BIG OIL in America, wants to, SELL GASOLINE.

  21. ben says:

    I own 2 Vw tdis. The older one has almost half a million miles. My 2014 is my d.d. Just getting broke in. Last tank was 53 mpg. I really like these cars, and hate seeing this happen.

    I guess diesel has a lot in common with coal now.

  22. Woh Cares says:

    It wasn’t just the 500 thousand cars sold in the U.S. those were just an accidental catch.
    The whole thing started because the Europeans noticed the VW diesels misbehaving, then handed out the research of this to a U.S. firm which confirmed the discrepancy and then reported this to the CARB and EPA.

  23. joejoe says:

    The EPA causes more harm than good.
    For example, Volkswagon also has a car that goes 50 plus miles per gallon but it’s emissions are slightly higher so it is not available in the US.
    How much more pollution does using twice as much gas cause?

  24. JohnF says:

    “would violate US law and deceive consumers with impunity.”

    Sounds like the Too Big Too Jail Corporations, Wall Street & the Banksters who used high speed computers & software to cheat everyone out of their retirement investments in the Various American Markets.

  25. Blank Reg says:

    Here’s a more reasoned response to the problem. It’s all relative…

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