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Clean Diesel May Be Not So Clean

Lately, Volkswagen’s newsworthiness has been all about heralding its climb to ‘world’s biggest automaker’ with reports detailing its ‘sprawling empire’ encompassing Audi and Bentley luxury cars, Porsche and Lamborghini sports cars, Scania and MAN heavy trucks, and Ducati motorcycles. …But now this.  Big trouble.

Recent tests conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation on diesel vehicles that included testing a Volkswagen Jetta and Passat reportedly found a discrepancy between their ‘real world’ emissions and lab test results, which, in turn, revealed they contained a “defeat device”— software that turns on the full emission control system only when emission testing is underway.

Without these pollution controls, diesel engines provide increased torque and better acceleration and are more fuel efficient, and durable.  But they also emit nitrogen oxide, an air pollutant said to be linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases.

On Sunday, September 20, 2015, speaking before the start of the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen’s CEO did not contest the notice of violation issued by the US Environmental Protection Association [the EPA] alleging that many models of Volkswagen ‘clean’ diesel cars are equipped with this software.  This means that while being driven normally, these cars spew as much as 40 times the pollution allowed under the US Clean Air Act.

Mr. Winterkorn is reported as saying he is:  “personally … deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public…[and] we will do everything necessary to reverse the damage this has caused.”

California has issued its own notice of violation, reports say that the EPA, the US Justice Department, and California will together be investigating these allegations.  Recalls could cover 4-cylinder diesel Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from the model years 2009 to 2015, including the Volkswagen Jetta, Beetle, Golf, Passat, and Audi A3—roughly 482,000 diesel passenger cars in total.

Volkswagen spokesman, John Schilling said that immediately the company will stop selling 2015 and 2016 Volkswagen and Audi models equipped with 4-cylinder turbo diesel engines, which the company has marketed as “clean diesel.”  The company will also stop selling certified pre-owned or used cars with these engines.  While the actual number of unsaleable vehicles is unclear, in early September 2015, Volkswagen said 23% of new cars sold in the US in August were diesels or 7,400 vehicles.

Volkswagen is facing a fine under the US Clean Air Act of up to $18 billion based on a $37,500 fine for each recalled vehicle. Reports also say the company has heard from the US Justice Department, which the EPA has said, “could pursue criminal prosecution.”  Mr. Winterkorn, having only recently survived a power struggle with the chairman of Volkswagen’s supervisory board, Mr. Ferdinand Piëch, is expected to be further weakened by this.

There are also some predictions that this case “could damage all German automakers, which have tried to build acceptance in the United States for diesel engines, a sector in which they believe they have a technological lead.”  Still, we might guess that this crisis, so-called, is more a matter of excitement in the press than a lasting concern to the motoring public.

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