[UPDATE Oct 8: Volkswagen’s U.S. chief blames emissions scandal on “individuals,” via Reuters, supporting our theory below (originally published on LinkedIn September 23, 2015).]

The utterly mind-blowing, inexplicable implosion of Volkswagen, the number one car company (by sales) in the world, has shocked not just the entire auto industry, Top Gear fans, and auto enthusiasts generally — never mind VW owners — but every person on the planet not living under a rock as well. This isn’t just a big deal with respect to the auto industry; it isn’t even just a big deal with respect to the environmental harm such deceit has surely caused; it’s a big deal with respect to the general trust — or lack thereof — consumers should place in the companies with which we deal on a daily basis.

First, a quick primer on what the heck just happened, and what it all means.

What the heck just happened?

It appears that a certain model of diesel engine used by VW was unable to meet the incredibly stringent emissions laws of the US, and so a cheat was implemented to work around it. Basically, the engine software could detect when the car was subjected to emissions testing — i.e., strapped to a dyno, sensors attached, etc. — and it (probably) retarded engine torque (and thus power, as power is simply a function of torque, and with it, fuel efficiency as well) in an effort to reduce emissions to the required level and successfully pass the test.

In short, a software cheat choked the car to reduce emissions while testing, and allowed the car to breathe freely when not testing.

Then, when the testing was completed, the software would revert the car to its ordinary operating parameters with increased torque and improved gas mileage, along with exhaust fumes far above the legal limit. In short, the software choked the car to reduce emissions (and power and fuel efficiency) while testing, and allowed the car to breathe freely — producing more power, with improved fuel efficiency, and of course increased toxic emissions — when not testing.

What are these emissions, exactly?

The exhaust vapors of automobiles are pretty nasty stuff. As a result, gas (petrol) and diesel cars alike have complicated systems to cleanse as much of the toxic chemical compounds as possible before they exit the exhaust pipes. All things being equal, there is a cost associated with such cleansing apparatus, typically manifested in the form of reduced power and gas mileage.

There are two main chemical compounds that really matter: CO2 (carbon dioxide) and NOx (basically, any oxides of nitrogen, e.g., NO and NO2). While CO2 is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, NOx wreaks havoc on air quality, and is the primary culprit in the formation of smoggy air.

What are the legal requirements for diesel engines in the US?

The US is notoriously strict on emissions — whether diesel or gas — and our threshold is a staggering 10 times lower than in Europe (excluding the new Euro Emissions 6 (EU6) standards), or roughly 0.025 g/km NOx.

VW’s diesel engines produce a whopping 40 times the legal limit of NOx.

So how much NOx do VW’s diesel engines produce with the software cheat?

A whopping 40 times the legal limit, or roughly 1 g/km NOx. To put it another way, a 100 km drive — roughly 62 miles — would produce a staggering 100 g — basically one 3.5 oz shot glass — worth of noxious NOx.

How are these emissions reduced?

There are two methods in use today, the most common of which is a urea-based solution which serves as a final cleansing agent just before the exhaust exits the vehicle. It works well, but the downside is that the urea solution needs to be replaced every so often, typically when performing an oil change. It’s also a somewhat bulky, cumbersome apparatus, and ads several hundred pounds of weight to a vehicle. You might call it a sub-optimal hack solution, then. But it works. And for the emissions gods, that’s all that matters.

The other method is effectively a “trap” system which dispenses with the urea solution entirely and simply collects the offending chemical compounds before they exit the vehicle.

The trap mechanism sounds great; why would any car manufacturer ever use the urea solution method?

Simple. The trap mechanism sounds great, but, well, isn’t great at all. Indeed, if you look at all the other car manufacturers that sell diesel in the US — Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi, and a handful of American cars — they use the urea solution instead. They couldn’t get the trap solution to work.

Why didn’t VW just use the urea solution?

VW did use it for some of their larger diesel engines in use in their larger vehicles. But for their smaller cars — Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat, Audi A3 (VW owns Audi), and, in Europe, certain Seat and Skoda cars — they used a smaller 2.0 liter diesel engine with which, presumably, they wanted to save weight and complexity.

VW wanted to offer the simplest solution possible,  i.e., something without the urea solution; something you never even had to think about.

Also, although the replacement of the urea fluid is a simple thing performed for free by the dealership, and almost always concurrently with an oil change so that it doesn’t in any way inconvenience or otherwise adversely affect the car owner, it just seemed like an added layer of maintenance, just another thing that had to be done. So for the smaller, less expensive, more mass market cars, VW wanted to offer the simplest solution possible, i.e., something without the urea solution; something you never even had to think about.

Who else uses the trap method instead of the urea solution?

To my knowledge, nobody: no other car manufacturers have managed to design a potent, high gas mileage diesel engine utilizing the trap method capable of meeting the stringent emissions regulations

So VW was the only car manufacturer to pull this off then?

Yes. Except that they didn’t really pull it off at all. It really was too good to be true. It didn’t work. Hence the software cheat.

But did the ploy work at least? Did VW sell more diesels in the US than other car manufacturers?

Absolutely. VW has sold more diesel cars in the US than any other car manufacturer. The combination of hybrid-calibre fuel efficiency plus strong, torquey engines, immensely far cruise ranges, and trouble-free maintenance, not to mention bullet-proof, forever-lasting engines, finally started to catch on and overwrite diesel’s dirty, smelly past which effectively ended in the US in the 1980s.

And what kind of MPG numbers are we talking about?

A diesel VW Golf TDI is rated at around 43 mpg freeway, good for an impressive 550 miles of range, and offers an incredibly strong 236 lb/ft of torque which has no problem masking the seemingly tiny 140 hp.

Weirdly, real-world gas mileage (and thus, range) was significantly higher, often in the mid- to high-50 MPG, offering a staggering 700 miles of cruise range, even at 70 mph.

But weirdly — and perhaps now we know why — real-world gas mileage (and thus, range) was significantly higher, often in the mid- to high-50 MPG, offering a staggering 700 miles of cruise range, even at 70 mph. If indeed the software cheat functioned by retarding engine power and/or increasing fuel consumption, then this would explain the discrepancy between the EPA MPG claims and the oft-cited real-world driving results by diesel VW owners.

Ok so what’s this new theory?

As of today, VW’s CEO Martin Winterkorn has just resigned, and although effectively admitting guilt, the claim from VW top brass is that they simply didn’t know.

First, even if they didn’t know, they should have known. Still, it’s a curious thing worth pondering. Is it really possible they didn’t know?

VW’s past, present, and future, have always been about diesel, not hybrid

Diesel is by far and away the fuel of choice for vehicles in Europe, largely due to the stupendous taxes levied on gas (petrol), which makes diesel relatively cheap in comparison. That, and all things being equal, a small (modern) diesel engine will usually offer a better driving experience than a comparable gasoline engine: vastly more torque offers immediate acceleration from a stoplight and during passing maneuvers around town; around 20-30% greater fuel efficiency; engines that will go hundreds of thousands of miles without failing; and, best of all, diesel vehicles are typically less expensive than comparable hybrids. Win, win, and win, then.

VW has been floundering in the US for quite some years, and with the spiked demand for more fuel efficient cars, has been hell bent on making a name for itself as a more economical — and better driving — alternative to hybrids with its new so-called “Clean Diesel” TDI-badged cars. Combined with the legendary “German driving dynamics” offered by even the most pedestrian of VW’s offerings, it appeared VW’s strategy was working.

VW’s top brass was adamant that its engineering team figure out how to make the urea-free “trap” mechanism work while all others had failed.

There was just one problem: the icing on the cake was to be VW’s urea-free “trap” mechanism, a seemingly impossible engineering accomplishment that VW — and VW alone — was determined to master while all others had failed. VW’s top brass was adamant that its engineering team figure out how to make it work.

Except that VW couldn’t make it work. Try as they might, VW’s brilliant engineers simply couldn’t make the trap mechanism work as well as the urea solution to capture or cleanse those noxious vapors produced from diesel combustion. Not by a long shot; indeed, as has since been reported, these cars have been belching out 40 times the legal limit.

“Vee must cheat the system. I know! Let us write some software to trick the emissions test!  Yah! Das ist eine gute Idee!

But still the question remains, how could VW have authorized such deceit? Can you imagine a bunch of VW executives sitting round a table saying “Nein! This is not good enough! Ok then, fine: vee must cheat the system. I know! Let us write some software to trick the emissions test! Yah! Das ist eine gute Idee!

Fake it until you make it?

That’s a comically absurd scenario to contemplate, so I’d like to propose an alternative: what if the engineers had no choice? What if VW was pressuring them to such a degree — with threat of losing their jobs even? — to solve the emissions trap mechanism that, in a last ditch effort of frustration with what was apparently a physically impossible engineering task to begin with, they basically threw their collective hands up in the air and said “Scheiße! This is impossible, it cannot be done … ok screw it, let’s just fake it.”

What if the engineering team threw their hands up in the air and said ” Scheiße! This is impossible, it  cannot be done … ok screw it, let’s just fake it.”

Isn’t it at least within the realm of possibility that VW executives did not in fact know what was going on, and it was merely out of an act of desperation under threat of losing their jobs that the engineers finally just caved in and did whatever they could?

Isn’t it possible that the engineers simply cheated to appease a totally irrational demand by VW and to keep their jobs?

Obviously, this wouldn’t in any way insulate VW executives — again, even if they didn’t know, they certainly should have known — but it’s a fascinating theory to consider, and certainly at least gives pause to wonder if there is in fact a limit to how hard one should push their team, especially when the goal is essentially impossible. Then again, Elon Musk seems to have accomplished the seemingly impossible again (Tesla) and again (SpaceX) and again (SolarCity), without running afoul of any laws or regulations.

So what happens now?

Obviously, VW will be required to either repair or remove entirely from the streets all affected vehicles, some 500,000 in the US alone, and potentially up to 11 million if similarly cheating vehicles are determined to exist in Europe and the rest of the world.

There are three possible solutions:

  1. Remove the software cheat: this should cause the vehicles to comply with emissions regulations, but almost certainly with reduced power and fuel efficiency. Interestingly though, maybe this is precisely why the EPA MPG ratings for diesel VWs in the US is so much lower than their real-world examples.
  2. Install a hacked-together urea solution fix in the trunk: highly improbable as it would likely cost more and take longer than just removing the software cheat, not to mention devour valuable trunk space.
  3. Buy back all the cars: also highly improbable due to the absurd costs involved.

And what about the owners of affected VW vehicles?

It’s an interesting question, and the answer is not immediately apparent. Assuming the most likely scenario — option 1 above, where the software is simply removed — chances are the vehicles will simply experience a gas mileage drop (and perhaps a power reduction as well).

If, after the imminent recall, the fuel efficiency simply drops to what the EPA had claimed all along, then has the consumer really been harmed?

But because real-world gas mileage is already around 10-20% higher than the EPA claims, it’s conceivable that the vehicles will now simply “suffer” gas mileage ratings that are merely equal to the actual EPA claims anyway, i.e. 43 rather than the mid-50s. And if this happens, then do consumers really have any complaint? After all, the fuel efficiency they were enjoying until now was pleasantly surprisingly far higher than the EPA claims anyway; if, after the imminent recall, the fuel efficiency drops to precisely what the EPA had claimed all along, then has the consumer really been harmed? Not likely.

Speaking of consumers, what do they need to do now?

Nothing. Just hang tight, wait for VW or your local dealership to notify you.

And what about VW?

They will weather this storm, more or less, never mind the sheer cliff traced out by their recent stock drop. And while the billions of dollars in fines will certainly hurt — likely to be 30% more than their operating profit — the real harm will come from lost consumer trust: after all, VW’s slogan was “Truth in engineering.”


This story originally published on Quora.

Follow me on Twitter @MarcHoag
Follow me on @Quora


8 thoughts on “Volkswagen: a different theory on what happened [UPDATED]

  1. The engineers would not be motivated to cheat on their own. If they told management the trap system could not work, would management fire them and hire other engineers? Not when all the other diesel engineers in the world agree it can’t work. And if they went ahead and cheated secretly, they they know they could eventually be found out, fired, and sued by the corporation for every dollar they would ever earn. So no, they would cheat only if management had told them to.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is precisely what happened to Steve Jobs, sinking NEXT. The only way to meet his demands on his sales team was fraud. Such gigantic fraud in Europe that it took the company down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just when I thought I knew everything about Steve Jobs — having read virtually every major book, seen every film (though yet to see the most recent one, “Steve Jobs” — this comes along, to which I can only say, rather aghast, “Really?!” While I knew NeXT certainly suffered many ills and issues, I’m not aware of any fraud, per se. Care to enlighten?


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