The Volkswagen emissions scandal has rocked the car industry and prompted drivers everywhere to wonder if they can trust anything car makers tell them. The outrage was discovered in the US and involves a programme hidden in cars’ computers. This can tell when the vehicle is undergoing an emissions test. It then switches the engine to a mode where it emits less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) to pass strict air quality tests. There are 11 million cars world-wide that could be affected. Here’s what British drivers need to know.
VW emissions scandal: Which British cars may be affected?
This could potentially be such a massive problem for the VW Group because the engine in question is one of its most popular around the world. It’s the EA189, a 1.6 and 2.0-litre turbo diesel (TDI in VW-speak). It was launched in 2008 but has recently been superseded. Thanks to the VW Group strategy of using the same engines across its brands, the engine can be found in the Polo MkV, Golf MkVI (2008-12), Passat MkVII (2010-14) and Tiguan (2007-15); Skoda Fabia, Octavia, Superb and Yeti; SEAT Leon, Altea and Alhambra; Audi A1, A3, A3 cabrio, A4, A5, A6, TT, Q3 and Q5.
VW emissions scandal: How do you find out if your car is affected?
The easiest way is to log onto the Volkswagen website (there are links for Skoda, SEAT and Audi) and input your vehicle’s VIN number. It will then tell you if your car has the defeat device fitted. VW says it hasn’t yet worked out a fix for the problem but is hoping to recall and rectify all affected cars for free in the new year.
VW emissions scandal: What does it really mean for car owners?
If we ignore the air quality issue for a moment, plus the fact that we don’t know if VW has been tampering with cars in the UK, this could actually benefit drivers in certain respects. Nick Molden from independent tester Emissions Analytics explained: “This software knows when the car is on the road and switches into the mode that gives the best driving performance or fuel economy for the customer.” The cars are rigged to pass clean air restrictions but give customers the kind of fuel economy they could never achieve if their vehicles were permanently set to deliver reduced NOx readings.
VW emissions scandal: What does this mean if you drive an affected car?
If – and it’s still a big if – this software has been built into European vehicles, the likelihood is the affected cars will have to be recalled to have their engine computer, the ECU, reprogrammed. It’s a modification that would likely harm the vehicle’s real-world performance and probably reduce mpg. However, a VW spokesperson said: “I am not aware of any recalls, service procedures or emissions issues relating to Volkswagen models in the UK.”
VW emissions scandal: How much is the testing system to blame?
Anyone who’s bought a car because it claimed 60mpg and then struggled to get 45 in the real world will know that the European testing system is flawed. Even the car industry recognises this. And if it’s inaccurate in testing mpg, it’s inaccurate in testing real-life emissions. Checks conducted by the independent International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that a typical modern diesel emits between seven and 10 times more NOx on the road than the Euro 6 limit of 80mg/km that must be achieved in tests. In June 2015, the Sunday Times revealed that Emissions Analytics had tested three Fords with the company’s latest EcoBoost petrol engines. While all had better economy and CO2 emissions than rivals, they had four times more NOx than regulations permit. There’s no suggestion Ford is cheating the tests.
VW emissions scandal: Is VW alone in this mess?
At the moment yes. However, Greg Archer from Brussels-based pressure group, Transport & Environment told the Daily Mail in September 2015: “I think it is very likely that other companies are using devices similar to the one used by Volkswagen. Because the real world results and the test results are just so different for so many models. Volkswagen is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.” Nick Molden countered: “We don’t think it’s wide spread. It’s taken many years to prove it’s been happening at all.”
VW emissions scandal: Has this happened before?
In 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined various diesel engine makers for including ‘defeat devices’ similar to VW’s in heavy truck engines. Earlier in the 1990s, Ford and Honda in the US were fined for installing devices that caused their cars to emit more pollutants than they might ordinarily. In Europe, it’s been revealed car makers tamper with vehicles within the boundaries of the checks to record better mpg figures.
VW emissions scandal: What about air quality?
Government figures show poor air quality is responsible for 29,000 premature deaths in the UK. It’s thought that 70 per cent of these are caused by vehicle pollution with NOx the greatest killer.
VW emissions scandal: What does the car industry say?
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Trader said: “Consumers should be reassured that cars sold in the UK must comply with strict European laws. All cars must complete a standard emissions test, which unlike in the US, is independently witnessed by a government-appointed independent agency. On the separate on-going debate about real world testing, the industry accepts that the current test method for cars is out of date and is seeking agreement from the European Commission for a new emissions test that embraces new testing technologies and which is more representative of on-road conditions.”