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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Online Exclusive: Airing Volkswagen’s Dirty Emissions

Air Date: Week of

Recently, a small group of scientists uncovered that Volkswagen had installed software on its small diesel vehicles that allowed them to cheat on emissions tests to meet EPA clean air standards. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst with Union of Concerned Scientists, about the carmaker’s incentive to cheat and if “clean diesel” is possible.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Volkswagen is “the peoples’ car”, but company management has been pulling a fast one on we the people – cheating to misrepresent just how green its diesel VW and Audi cars are. We called up Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists to explain what they did – and why – and what it means for the whole concept of “Clean Diesel”. Welcome to Living on Earth!

COOKE: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So, first, what exactly did Volkswagen do here?

COOKE: Well, the bottom line is that Volkswagen cheated on the tests. Emission tests are run with a vehicle on what is called a dynamometer. A dynamometer is essentially a treadmill for your car. It tricks the vehicle into needing to output the same amount of power as though the vehicle were driving down the road, but it does so by remaining in place, so you can measure emissions at the tailpipe. In this case they were cheating on nitrogen oxide emissions, which are a smog-forming pollutant.

CURWOOD: How was this cheating scandal uncovered?

COOKE: It was uncovered when a team from the International Council on Clean Transportation, together with researchers at West Virginia University, wanted to look at diesel vehicles and show that today’s diesel vehicles are clean. So they tested the vehicles on a dynamometer, but they also then tested the vehicles on the road by actually measuring the emissions while they were being driven, and they discovered that the on-road emissions were significantly higher for the two Volkswagen vehicles they tested than the emissions on the dynamometer test. This raised red flags for them; they then contacted folks at the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. The California Air Resources Board then did their own testing, confirmed what ICCT had found, and finally Volkswagen had to confess that they had two calibrations and the car could recognize when it was being tested, and was using that calibration, and then on-road it was using a different calibration which then led to significantly higher emissions.

Nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds released during gasoline combustion to form smog. (Photo: Pag293, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

CURWOOD: The big question here, of course, is what incentive would drive Volkswagen — now this is a company with a longstanding reputation for building affordable, really good and drivable cars — what would prompt them to cheat this way?

COOKE: Well, I think the incentive is very strong. Diesels make up a significant fraction of Volkswagen sales in the U.S. — it’s around 20 percent. When they were forced to halt diesel sales under the emissions standards, they were the first diesel manufacturers to sell vehicles that met the new standards in 2008 — so their 2009 model vehicles were the first. But obviously they were able to do so by cheating the system, and instead of engineering a true solution. They’ve continued to evolve their emissions control strategies since that initial cheat, and what’s surprising is they continued to cheat the system, despite making significant advances in emissions controls.

CURWOOD: So, how does one keep the car industry honest?

COOKE: I think it’s a really challenging point. EPA audits about fifteen percent of the vehicles sold, they do their own testing. But in general they do rely significantly on manufacturer-submitted results, and so they have backup from consumer advocacy groups who do their own testing, or independent research groups like ICCT, can raise some of these red flags to act as a secondary precaution.

CURWOOD: So, what difference might this cheating by Volkswagen mean in terms of the performance of their vehicles?

COOKE: In the case of generation one vehicles — so the first few model years of the Jetta, for example, so 2009 model year — it’s possible that to remedy this problem, you would need to significantly redesign the engine, and actually include a new after-treatment system, which would also have thousands of dollars of cost, in addition to complexity and it would completely change how the engine performs. So if the engine now had to run the emissions control system at its optimal capacity, you could see a decrease in available power for the vehicle. When they figure out a solution to this problem, it is likely that any recalled vehicle will see diminished performance and diminished fuel economy.

CURWOOD: Well, how achievable is “clean diesel”?

COOKE: So one of the concerns that we have here at the Union of Concerned Scientists is that people are going to see this as another knock on diesel technology; and we do believe that you can make diesel clean. Other manufacturers are proving it; we think that diesel has unique performance characteristics that may be more preferable to consumers in certain situations, and so it certainly can be a part of a cleaner transportation future.

Dave Cooke is a vehicle analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. (Photo: Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists)

CURWOOD: By the way, what is the impact of diesel combustion compared to gasoline when it comes to climate-changing gases?

COOKE: What we’ve found is that diesel fuel economy on average is, let’s say, 25 percent better than a typical gasoline counterpart. Part of that comes from the fact that diesel fuel actually has more carbon and is more energy-dense and takes more energy to make, so part of that fuel economy benefit is diminished when you’re looking at CO2 emissions. And so that 25 percent improvement in fuel economy only leads to about five percent reduction in global warming emissions. But that’s still five percent.

CURWOOD: Dave Cooke is a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dave, thanks so much for taking the time today.

COOKE: Thanks for having me.



Dave Cooke’s coverage of the Volkswagen scandal

VW’s Emissions Cheating Found by Curious Clean-Air Group

Your Guide to Dieselgate: Volkswagen’s Diesel Cheating Catastrophe

The ICCT and West Virginia University study that revealed the emissions discrepancy

“Diesels vs Hybrids: The Costs and Benefits of Both (And a Shiny Calculator!)” by Dave Cooke

Automaker Rankings 2014: The Environmental Performance of Car Companies


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