What now for VW?


Since I wrote in this space last week the VW emissions scandal has moved on further and faster than most would have predicted. The company has fired not only its boss, Martin Winterkorn (main image) but two of his most talented lieutenants, Wolfgang Hatz and Ulrich Hackenberg.

These names will mean little to most people, but to those of us who report on the industry, they are giants and regarded alongside remarkably few others as the true architects of the VW Group’s massive recent success. It is they who made engineering excellence the single most important hallmark of the VW Group approach, in which the product was everything. They will not be easy to replace.

Ulrich Hackenberg (right) with Wolfgang Ullrich

Did they know what was going on? Perhaps they should, but I doubt they did.

As I understand it, the ‘defeat device’ was installed by engineers in 2009 and charged with ensuring the EA 189 diesel engine met the prevailing US emissions standards. The engine needed all the emissions equipment it carries to this day to pass the test, but to do so in the laboratory carried such penalties in terms of performance, driveability and fuel consumption that, left as they were, no-one would want to buy one.

So the engineers decided to provide the best of both worlds: a fully compliant engine in the lab and one that satisfied its owners on the road, the only slight snag being that to make it that way was completely illegal.

A further complication is that the defeat device was fully integrated into the car’s electronic architecture, meaning that even when it was no longer needed it couldn’t just be removed, even if you ignore the fact that anyone who knew it was there would be unlikely to want to own up to knowing of its existence.

So the question is would someone at board level be told, and if so would he sanction the illegality knowing it would go on for years, affect many millions of cars and, it seems to me, inevitably be discovered sooner or later?

I don’t know, but it seems implausible. Even so, they were departmentally responsible and sad though I am to see the careers of two men I have liked and admired for years end in disgrace, there was no other way for justice to be seen to be done.

So what next? This is the bit I’m really dreading. What is going to happen is there will now be an orgy of testing by vehicle certification agencies the world over including cars of many different types and makes. This will happen because governments will feel obliged to at least appear to have taken action.

Ours already has. Its aim will be to check whether results achieved in the laboratory by car manufacturers correlate with those achieved by them in ‘the real world’. And every single one of them is going to discover what most of us instinctively know already, which is that they won’t. In fact, they won’t even come close. This will be cited as evidence of a global conspiracy by car manufacturers to lie to their customers and regulators.

The truth is rather more prosaic. Car manufacturers are world class at bending the rules. Every large car company in the world employs huge numbers of engineers simply to find ways of ensuring their cars produce the best possible results the rules allow. In the fuel consumption and CO2 tests this includes ensuring cars that are tested are fitted with low rolling resistance rubber and that their gear ratios and shift points are optimised, not for you and me, but the exact requirements of the test.

Some have driver-selectable engine maps, the default setting just happening to be the best for achieving decent fuel consumption in test conditions. I heard too of aero devices that stay un-deployed until the car’s speed has risen above the test parameters. And these are just a few of the games they play.

But the point is none is actually illegal and you can’t blame the manufacturers for getting the most out of the rulebook any more than you can Adrian Newey.

Blame instead the people who make the rules for it is their utterly unfit procedures that mean there’s barely a car on sale that will get anywhere near its claimed fuel consumption (and therefore CO2 output) in normal driving.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these ‘real world’ tests are conducted. Just as an example, will they be conducted in fresh Alpine air, or downtown Los Angeles? Bentley claimed years ago that its engines emitted so few pollutants that if you drove one through a smog-filled town, it would actually clean the air as it went.

In laboratories cars are fed entirely uncontaminated air, first because that is allowed, and second it is the only way to achieve consistent, repeatable results. So when it is discovered that ‘in the real world’ pollutant emissions are many times what has been claimed, it’s probably got nothing whatever to do with criminal activity on the part of the car manufacturers and everything to do the grubby air their cars are being fed. Sadly that doesn’t make such a good headline in the Daily Mail.

The unintended consequences of VW’s illegal actions are that all manufacturers have now become suspects. Without exception every person from outside the industry I’ve spoken to in the last week has presumed they’re all at it and VW was just the one that got caught. I simply don’t believe it, not because car manufacturers are saints, but because they’re not stupid either and would know the likelihood of getting rumbled.

So we’re now in for years of expensive, pointless testing and fingers being pointed in entirely the wrong direction, when what really needs to happen is for rule makers to accept it is their rules that are really the problem and draft some more that are actually fit for purpose. Until that happens, and with apologies to a certain Midlands-based playwright, what will result is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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