Why Did Volkswagen Cheat on VW Emissions?

Why Did Volkswagen Cheat on VW Emissions?.

We are no longer accepting VW emissions fraud cases.

Volkswagen Chairman Hans-Dieter Pötsch made a public announcement earlier this month addressing the VW emissions scandal. Specifically he discussed why the company installed the ‘defeat device’ on roughly 11 million of its vehicles worldwide.

According to Pötsch, VW engineers decided to implement the defeat devices because they were unable to work out a technical solution to build diesel engines that met U.S. emissions standards within the company’s “time frame and budget.”

But Pötsch’s statement went further: when VW engineers finally did work out a solution to the problem, they chose to keep the defeat devices in place, rather than implement the solution. This was not a single mistake, said Pötsch, this was a chain of uninterrupted mistakes.

The chairman’s remarks were the preliminary findings of an internal investigation of the VW emissions scandal. The fraud was born of “a mindset in some areas of the company that tolerated breaches of the rules,” said Pötsch in his statement.

EPA Standards

United States Environmental Protection Agency

The chain of events that culminated in this year’s VW emissions scandal began in 2004 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dramatically raised emissions standards on how much pollution new cars could discharge in the U.S. The new standards effectively slashed the amount of nitrogen oxide that vehicles were allowed to emit by more than 94 percent. Clearly, the 2004 requirements presented a steep engineering challenge for carmakers, especially those that were looking to offer fuel-efficient diesel model vehicles to the U.S. market.

Consumers who like diesel vehicles prefer them because they get more torque, better mileage and maintain their value better than most gas-powered vehicles. The problem is that diesel engines emit more nitrogen dioxide than most gas-powered engines.

More than 50 percent of vehicles in Europe have diesel engines because European emissions standards are not as stringent as U.S. standards. Here, less than 5 percent of vehicles are diesel. Volkswagen saw the low diesel numbers as an opportunity…if it could conquer the U.S. diesel market, it could position itself as one of the top selling automakers in the world.

Other car companies were also keen to try their hands at the U.S. diesel market, but Hyundai, Mazda, Honda and Nissan all backed away from the action because the EPA standards were too much to deal with—it was simply too hard to engineer cars that maintained high engine performance whilst meeting emissions standards.

VW used the challenge as an opportunity. In 2008, VW was rewarded when it received the first Green Car of the Year award ever granted to a diesel vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2008. But as we now know, the accolade was ill-begotten. The reason VW emissions were so low in its diesel line was because of the defeat devices.

How Many People Were Involved in the VW Emissions Scandal?

At this point, this remains a difficult question to answer. VW initially said the implementation of the defeat device was the work of “a couple of software engineers,” this according to Michael Horn, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America. Horn made this statement to U.S. lawmakers in sworn testimony. Later, Horn would say that the implementation was the work of three engineers. Still later, Horn would say he didn’t know the number of engineers. He still maintains that installing the defeat devices was not a corporate decision.

After VW admitted to the scandal, it offered its lower level employees an amnesty program to come clean about how much they knew about the scandal. Thus far, 50 lower level employees (non-managers) have confessed to having knowledge about the VW emissions cheat software. The high number suggests that there are still many more who either had knowledge of the VW emissions scandal or even participated in it. Some VW engineers and techs reportedly tried to bring the scandal to the attention of superiors going back to 2011. They were ignored.

Only nine managers have been suspended in connection with the VW emissions scandal. No lower level employees have been disciplined.

Experts have said that it is possible, at least in theory, that the cheat software code could have been the written by a single person. However, making that code work with all the other parts of the engine is a complex proposition that likely would have involved more people.

VW Emissions Scandal: What Made Volkswagen Think it Could Cheat?

Other car companies were presented with the same opportunity to conquer the U.S. diesel market by cheating the way Volkswagen did. So why Volkswagen? Why did the German automaker think it could get away with this deception?

For starters, Volkswagen engineers probably figured that the chances of getting caught were small. Think about it: a car has millions of lines of code and some have upwards of 50 different computer systems communicating with one another. Most developers at car companies cannot possibly scrutinize millions of lines of code, so it is easy to imagine that the cheat code was replicated in Volkswagen after Volkswagen without detection. And as for the EPA finding the cheat code, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

But how did the deception remain under wraps for so long?

That might be explained by Volkswagen’s corporate culture, which is one in which employees are expected to get the job done, under any circumstance. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, puts it thusly:

“At Volkswagen, the management might say, ‘Please think again on that, and if you don’t find a solution, we may need to find another engineer.’ You may find yourself in a situation where, if you want to keep your job, you have no escape.”

All of this is to say that employees who knew about the VW emissions scandal simply couldn’t do anything about it even if they wanted to—if they told anyone, they’d likely be fired.

Furthermore, Volkswagen’s bonus structure may also have played a part in keeping employees from coming forward and talking about the VW emissions cheat software. Unlike most businesses, Volkswagen hands out bonuses for individual performance as well as team performance. Everyone at the company from assembly line workers to the CEO receive bonuses, and the higher up the corporate ladder one climbs, the more one’s salary is based on bonuses. What this creates is an environment in which dissent is simply not tolerated—a potential whistleblower would not only be putting their own financial wellbeing in jeopardy, they’d be doing the same for coworkers in the same department.