Volkswagen (VW), aka the people’s car, is a giant in the car industry. The company has deep roots in automobile history, coming out a half decade after the first-ever car was invented. Volkswagen was officially founded on May 28, 1937. VW began manufacturing in Germany and was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who was hired by a Nazi organization at the time. The company’s sales in the US were initially sluggish because of a backlash against Nazi Germany. Then in 1959 sales began to pick-up, since the development of an effective marketing campaign for the Beetle. The “bug” became the number one car-import to the US for years to come.

From day one, VW did a good job of making affordable, high performance, and reliable cars, which gives reason for their lasting success from the 1950’s onward. Today, you’ll find Volkswagen’s main market in Asia, or rather in China, which covers about 40% of its sales. Europe also covers about 40% of Volkswagen sales. The US has a much smaller stake in VW sales, yet saw a sales increase of 5.8% in 2017. In the same year, VW sold an astounding 10.7 million cars worldwide, which just beats Toyota by a hair, making it the top selling car manufacturer.

However, VW’s past isn’t picture-perfect. In 2015, they faced, what is considered to be the largest car scandal in recent history. They still face scrutiny regarding the events that surrounded the scandal, especially in the US and the UK. In short, VW did something called, the “diesel dupe”, and used defeat devices to fake emissions tests, ‘passing’ cars that actually had emissions that far exceeded the legal limits. Apparently, under real-life driving conditions, VW’s NOx emissions were 40x the legal amount in the US. What’s wrong with this? Well, NOx has been known to cause very serious lung and plant disease, as well as lead to smog, which is a serious concern for states, like California, that are prone to it.

The environmental protection agency’s strict standards

Ever since the 1960’s, California has been establishing strict emissions standards under the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce their smog problem, that’s caused by car emissions. California’s standards have a major impact on the rest of North America, since many states choose to follow California’s emissions standards. It’s even been mandated under Federal Law that California is allowed to promote stricter standards to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Emissions standards have tightened dramatically since the advent of VW that happened almost seven decades ago.

The Clean Air Act currently uses an emissions control program that puts new car models through an inspection before they’re allowed to hit the market. Cars get placed on a chassis dynamometer, which replicates a real-life road and tests for performance and emissions. Car makers are at risk of not being allowed to make sales until they meet the mandatory standards, which is why manufacturers make certain that their cars are well-equipped prior to testing.  

Many diesel cars have high emissions, making it difficult to ever pass this test. Diesel burns, very efficiently at a high temperature, which makes the engine powerful and fuel-efficient. However, because of the high temperature, high levels of NOx are also released. The release of NOx is what makes diesel cars fail emissions tests, as well as makes them ineligible to be sold on the market.

It’s actually possible to make low-emissions diesel cars by installing a device in the engine that reacts with NOx. The reaction reduces the amount of NOx released however the device is also very big and expensive. This increases the overall cost of the car, which is a deterrent to car buyers. People looking to buy cars want them to be cheap, fuel-efficient, and powerful, which totally contradicts low-emission diesel cars. This conundrum is largely what brought about VW’s Diesel Dupe…

The Diesel Dupe

In September 2015, VW admitted to cheating the EPA’s Clean Air Standards tests. Volkswagen equipped their cars with defeat devices that could somehow detect when the car was undergoing test conditions. When being tested, the device was programmed to switch the car’s engine into low-emissions mode and then switch out to high emissions when normal driving was detected. The device that was used to switch the engine was called an EGR valve…

For low-emissions, the EGR valve, simply redirected some of the exhaust fumes back into the intake valve. The presence of exhaust fumes decreased the amount of oxygen that was available to react with the fuel. This made the reactions smaller and cooler, which reduced NOx emissions. The reason why low-emissions mode wasn’t always active is because it also decreased engine power. When normal driving resumed, the EGR would deactivate and the intake valve would take in oxygen only. This made the reactions bigger and hotter, and of course, increased NOx emissions, apparently, way above the EPA’s standards.

When it was discovered that VW had cheated the EPA, 11 million diesel cars were recalled worldwide. Apparently, VW paid a whopping 25 billion in fines, penalties, and restitution to the US alone for the 580,000 faulty diesel cars sold there. VW shares also dropped a dramatic 175% and still have a ways to go before ever reaching their pre-scandal peak.

The harshest punishment was issued to one of VW’s midlevel officers, Oliver Schmidt. He was far from the mastermind behind the scandal however he was sentenced to 7 years in prison. The reason he got into so much trouble is because he travelled to the US while Volkswagen was under prosecution. There, he became subject to US sanctions that countries, like Germany, do not impose for corporate crimes. The US used Schmidt as a draconian example of what would happen to anyone involved in the violation of the EPA, on behalf of a company.

One can only imagine that VW’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, will not be setting foot in the US anytime soon. However, this isn’t to say that all of the heat is off Winterkorn and he will likely face heavy prosecution from the US and other countries for years to come.  

What was the point of the Diesel Dupe?

VW had a grand vision, under CEO Winterkorn, to become the largest car supplier in the world. The plan was to increase VW sales in the US, by marketing diesel engines as low-cost, low-emissions, fuel-efficient, and powerful cars. Managers and engineers were all under intense pressure to make these “perfect” diesel cars. Faced with an impossible task, they decided to use the defeat devices to fake the emissions tests. VW succeeded in duping everyone and became the largest car seller, up until they were exposed in 2015. 

How did VW bounce back

VW’s CEO, Winterkorn, immediately resigned and was replaced by Mattias Muller. In a statement following the emissions scandal, Muller was quoted, “First of all, I have to apologize on behalf of Volkswagen. Second, I have to promise – and we will do the pledge – that we deliver appropriate solutions for our customers. As soon as possible”. That is exactly what VW did.

Under Muller, VW fully cooperated with penalties and also paid the fines owed to the US and Asia. They successfully regained some of their customers trust by providing Goodwill packages that included prepaid VISA’s, 500$ VW gift cards, and three years of 24-hour roadside assistance.

Another major factor in VW’s recovery was that they owed nothing to their sizeable European market, since the European government didn’t impose any fines. This isn’t to say that none of the European countries will ever fine VW, it just hasn’t happened yet.

Does the Diesel Dupe still haunt VW?

Recently, it was revealed that at the time of the diesel dupe, VW also confined macaques to an enclosed room and then filled it with diesel exhaust fumes. They also exposed monkeys to Ford F-250 exhaust fumes. The goals of these studies remain unclear… It’s possibly something to do with proving that diesel fumes aren’t harmful – which doesn’t make any sense.

The tests outraged animal rights activists everywhere. The German government also distanced themselves from VW. Spokesperson Steffen Seibert was quoted saying, “These tests on monkeys or even people are in no way justifiable and raise many critical questions about those who are behind the tests”. Clearly, Volkswagen has more than one skeleton in its closet and one can only hope that there’s nothing else left to reveal.

What happened to all those polluting Diesels?

Apparently, none of the car owners were required to send their VW’s back to the manufacturer to be fixed. However, failure to do so, could affect warranty and resale value. Anyone who’s currently looking to buy a 2009-2015 VW diesel model might expect to pay additional government taxes.


In 2018, we’re seeing a lot more concern over the environment that includes strict enforcement of the EPA. Volkwagen’s 2015 scandal is a great example of the consequences of breaking today’s environmental laws. An outcome of the diesel dupe is that the EPA now has craftier emissions tests. New tests are being conducted on cars, that are actually being driven, which renders defeat devices useless. It’ll be interesting to see what else the EPA can come up with to ensure that environmental protection laws are abided by. It’ll also be interesting to see how VW continues to navigate the dark shadow cast by the emissions scandal in years to come.