VW Diesels May Still Pollute More, Even When Fixed

VW

2013 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI Cars.com photo by Angela Conners

Even if the Volkswagen Group gets regulatory approval to fix some 475,000 four-cylinder diesel cars in its ongoing diesel-emissions scandal, the repaired systems could still pollute more than they originally certified under.

It’s unclear how much excess pollution the fix would allow because, at least for now, details on any remedy are far from clear. Jeannine Ginivan, a spokeswoman for the automaker, told Cars.com that it’s “a little difficult to comment” on the situation because the negotiations are still confidential. However, she noted that Volkswagen’s proposed settlement addresses the environmental consequences of excess emissions from both the past and future.

Volkswagen is not legally required to furnish a remedy; if it doesn’t, owners will have the option to sell their cars back to the automaker for a pre-scandal value plus restitution payments.

According to U.S. Justice Department court documents, any emissions modification “results in a quantifiable reduction in NOx emissions” to prescribed limits for each generation of diesel engines. VW must also remove all so-called “defeat devices” — the software at issue that evades emissions tests — from any remedied car.

Any approved fix would reduce emissions by 80 to 90 percent versus their current pollution levels, EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine told Cars.com. Still, that may not return the cars to legal emissions levels. The EPA has found that the defeat devices allowed real-world emissions for nitrogen oxide, a pollutant that’s been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems, to reach as high as 40 times the legal limit under the Clean Air Act.

Stanley Young, the California Air Resources Board’s communications director, conceded any approved fixes “do fall short” of the pollution standards to which VW originally certified its four-cylinder diesel engines. But the settlement accounts for that.

If adopted, it would require VW to pay billions into environmental mitigation projects, including $2.7 billion “to reduce emissions that have or will occur from the violating vehicles,” the EPA’s Valentine said.

“The settlement fully mitigates those past and future emissions that exceed the standards,” Young added. “The settlement recognizes that the standard — [that] we will not exactly meet the standard, and so [it] incorporates those excess emissions.”

Potential Fixes Elusive

Roland Hwang, director of energy and transportation for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the settlement’s proposal to leave Volkswagen’s noncompliant cars on the road was unexpected.

“What everyone was very surprised by was the regulators [saying cars are] to remain on the road and not to be fixed all the way,” Hwang said. “The regulators are pretty frustrated, but maybe at one point the vehicles couldn’t be fixed without something very, very expensive.”

Indeed, that solution has been hard to come by. In January, officials rejected VW’s proposed fix for the 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder that accounts for the vast majority of cars involved in the scandal. And last week, regulators rejected a proposed fix for the automaker’s 3.0-liter diesel V-6 — an engine in some 80,000 cars that are also involved. Both times, CARB officials said the proposals were too vague.

“Clearly, for some of these older vehicles, [a complete fix is] off the table,” Hwang said. “It’s not going to be fixed back to certification level. But can they fix it back to a level that’s acceptable?”

What Owners Would Get

Court documents for the proposed settlement stipulate that regulators can approve an emissions modification based on a number of factors, including its effect on emissions levels, onboard diagnostics systems and overall durability. Regulators may approve a fix for some vehicles but not others, and Volkswagen must give owners a “clear and accurate written disclosure” as to the modification’s impact, if any, on the car. That disclosure must include:

  • A general description of the modification
  • Details on all software and hardware changes
  • Any “reasonably predictable” changes that could alter reliability, durability, gas mileage, noise vibration, performance or drivability
  • Directions on how to get the repair, including any impediments you may experience in doing so

The automaker must also provide the disclosure in an online database that’s searchable by vehicle identification number. The proposed settlement stipulates that a free loaner car must accompany any fix that takes longer than three hours.

Although the four-cylinder diesel engines all displace the same 2.0 liters, there are three distinct generations. VW’s Ginivan confirmed the following deadlines for any fix:

  • For the third generation — installed in TDI versions of the 2015 Jetta, Golf, Golf SportWagen, Beetle, Beetle Convertible and Passat, as well as the 2015 Audi A3 TDI — Volkswagen faces a deadline of Oct. 14 to submit initial modifications. (Audi is a Volkswagen Group brand.)
  • The automaker has a deadline of Jan. 27, 2017, to submit a remedy for the first-generation engines. That’s in TDI versions of the 2009-2014 Volkswagen Jetta and Jetta SportWagen, 2010-2014 Golf, 2013-2014 Beetle and Beetle Convertible, and the 2010-2013 Audi A3.
  • The second-generation diesel engine has the latest deadline: March 3, 2017. That’s in the 2012-2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI.

The proposal says regulators will “use their best efforts” to approve or deny any proposal within 45 days of its submission, but consumers may not know whether their cars have an approved fix until May 2018.

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