How a West Virginia University Lab Uncovered the Volkswagen Emissions Ruse

It was really just a matter of testing the emissions from moving cars vs. cars on rollers.

Sep 28 2015, 10:00am

Image: West Virginia University

The Volkswagen "dieselgate" emissions scandal has already cost CEO Martin Winterkorn and managers at Audi and Porsche their jobs, but the full ecological impact is still slowly being revealed.

A new analysis has found that the VW cars outfitted with emissions-masking software could have belched out an unbelievable amount of up to one million tons of nitrogen-oxide per year.

These figures are especially alarming because, while cars may not emit as much nitrogen oxide as CO2, the former has a much more significant impact on the environment.

Up to 11 million VW cars were "rigged" to falsify emissions readings, and they exceeded the US emissions limits for nitrogen-oxide 10 to 40 times over. The annual nitrogen-oxide emissions of the cars thus even exceed the combined annual output of all of Great Britain, as calculated by the Guardian.

Dieselgate is a monumental scandal because it appears that the sole purpose for fitting the cars with this software was to trick emissions inspectors. Basically, the car's computer was programmed to detect testing conditions. As soon as the engine was running and the wheels were turning, but the car was not actually moving, as is the case in a typical testing situation, the engine's performance was changed so that emissions were in line with EPA standards.

This manipulation could thus only be revealed using an alternative mobile testing method, and that's where the curiosity of researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) came in. A team from the university's Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions examined the emissions of standard VW models and compared them with results from the EPA as early as this spring. They sent their study to the EPA, which did not publish these results until now.

The team had developed a device that can measure the emissions performance of an engine while the car is moving—as opposed to being on rollers—and during this testing the scientists were shocked to discover that the measured values obtained by the EPA during testing were much lower than those corresponding to normal vehicles in the street. For their measurements the scientists used a VW Jetta and a Passat, which they drove along the US west coast from Los Angeles to Seattle: In the trunk they installed a huge device connected to the exhaust pipe, measuring the emission values at different speeds.

Dan Carder. Image: West Virginia University

The amazing thing was that the results were 20 times higher than the legal limits for nitrogen-oxide. "When we saw the numbers for the first time, they were much higher than expected," says Dan Carder, the head of the WVU center, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "As a scientist you start by doubting the accuracy of your results." So, the testing was repeated, but the results remained the same.

At first, VW rejected the notion of having used software that embellishes emissions values. In the meantime, however, the company conceded that it tried to manipulate testing results, and soon after his statement that he was "very sorry," Winterkorn resigned. The technology behind the rigged diesel cars is a so-called "defeat device" that allows those models to emit up to 40 percent more of the toxic fumes than is actually allowed in normal traffic. This is how those engines reach the performance for which diesel cars are usually known—economical but dynamic.

Even though VW has admitted its guilt, the company has already hired the same US law firm that represented BP after the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon platform. Good legal representation will most likely be necessary.

The most recent information has shown that BMW has also exceeded European emission standards many times in the past. After last week's bad news, the shares of the company sank by 10 percent. In fact, the environmental pollution is probably higher in Europe than in the United States, since only 3 percent of all passenger cars in the US have diesel engines. In Europe, it is almost half of all inspected vehicles.