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September 21st, 2015:

Volkswagen: Taking the p***

Volkswagen have been caught in the United States cheating on diesel emissions tests. They have been using a “defeat device”; the car’s software is programmed to reduce emission of oxides of nitrogen to lawful levels only when it detects the car is actually undergoing emission testing. Most of the rest of the time, it just goes ahead and pollutes.

The US work was conducted by West Virginia University’s non-profit Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions. The work was paid for by the International Council on Clean Transportation, which is itself a non-profit organization funded by the ClimateWorks Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation: yes, the charitable foundations of both the founders of the famous HP electronic test equipment company.

Real-world NOx emissions were found to exceed the US-EPA…standard by a factor of 15 to 35 for the LNT-equipped vehicle, by a factor of 5 to 20 for one…urea-SCR fitted vehicle.

So why did they do this? Is seems that they were worried that the inconvenience of topping up a small tank of exhaust additive might upset drivers. So, most of the time, they disable the additive injection to stop the reservoir emptying. What is this magic AdBlue solution? It’s a urea and water-based liquid additive; beer drinkers (well all of us, really) will know it by a more common name, and there’s certainly no shortage.

And what are the lessons for us?

  1. Corporations cheat. Even trusted high-end companies like VW (they own Porche and Bentley) cheat. And they do so for apparently trivial reasons. Our only protection against corporate cheating is independent, open, research. And government cannot be trusted to hold them to account. Regulatory capture is too easy.
  2. The corporate cheats won’t be caught without ready access to skilled, independent, technical analysis; analysis that will only be affordable from independent university researchers. The ability, under tightening budgets and the impact agenda, of university researchers to work independent of wider corporate partnerships is under threat; without it, there will be nobody to catch the next Volkswagen.

Update: It seems Volkswagen were not just economising on AdBlue. Apparently, fully enabling the NOx controls will prevent the cars achieving their claimed performance.

And a professional note: This is almost certainly a company conspiracy, not a rogue employee. The engine-control software is safety-critical. It must have been subjected to extensive internal review. Sampling the steering to decide how to dose the exhaust should raise an immediately obvious issue.

Denis Nicole