The Volkswagen emissions scandal has now come home for me, and for thousands of other VW owners. We’ve now reached the point where the company is taking its cars back.
In September, 2015, Volkswagen admitted that the company had been cheating on emissions tests for diesel cars sold in the United States. The number of cars affected was about 500,000 cars with 4-cylinder diesel engines, and another approximately 80,000 with six cylinder engines. Most of the cars were Volkswagen, but a significant number were Audi and a few were Porsche SUVs.
Volkswagen engineers had installed software on the fuel injection computers of these vehicles that was able to detect when the car was having its emissions tested, and to adjust its emissions so that it would pass. The rest of the time, the cars exceeded emissions limits, but ran more smoothly and got better fuel mileage. The affected cars were from the 2008 model year and later.
Volkswagen was sued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, and accepted a settlement that required the company to buy back the affected cars or to fix them for free. The company was ordered to provide restitution to owners of the cars for having been sold supposedly clean diesels under what turned out to be false pretenses.
After a year of court procedures, the owners of 4-cylinderVolkswagen cars were officially finally presented with the option of selling their cars back to Volkswagen. The deal required that owners present their cars to a VW representative, who would inspect their car, and the provide a pre-negotiated settlement.
I was one of those owners.
For me the process started in the fall of 2016, when I filled out the information on the VW Court Settlement website. The company wanted to know how many miles were on the car (a 2015 Beetle), how much of a car loan I had and some details about the options and other items affecting value. Then I waited.
Eventually, I was given the opportunity to set up an appointment so that a VW representative could inspect the car and decide if it was really worth what the company was proposing to pay for it. That day came on April 10 after months of waiting.
I’d been dreading the day, certain that I’d find the company looking for ways to deny my claim or at least reduce the amount offered under the settlement terms. That didn’t happen.
Instead, I was ushered into a sparsely furnished office where I was greeted by a man with the demeanor of a neighborhood banker. We talked quietly and signed forms. The VW representative inspected the car and took photos, then returned with the verdict.
We were being offered the full amount originally suggested, which would be used to pay off the car loan. In addition, there was a significant restitution amount that would be sent to me. The result was that I was being given more for the two-year-old Beetle it had cost in the first place. In fact, I sold the car back to VW for a nice profit.
This settlement was nice for me and nice for the other half-million owners of cars with those same diesel engines, but it’s not nice for Volkswagen and it’s problematic for companies that make cars that run on alternate fuels. For example, investigators are already looking at some diesel vehicles produced by BMW to determine if their engines were configured to deceive emissions testing systems by a means similar to those employed by Volkswagen.
At the same time, prosecutors in the U.S. and in Germany have begun filing criminal charges against Volkswagen executives involved in the scandal and some have already been convicted and received jail time.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen has been having trouble getting its proposed fix for six-cylinder diesel engines approved by courts and regulators. These engines went into more expensive cars from VW and Audi and a mandated buy-back will cost the company a lot of money.
But the trouble goes beyond Volkswagen and beyond just diesel engines. Already federal investigators are checking other vehicles for defeat devices similar to those on diesel engines, but outfitted with gasoline engines. And the scandal’s effects have spread beyond the U.S. VW has sold nearly 11 million diesel vehicles world-wide and most of them are suspect.
While Volkswagen will continue to sell diesel vehicles outside the U.S., there’s significant doubt whether the company will ever again sell a diesel-powered automobile in the U.S. Because diesel engines are more fuel efficient than an equivalent gasoline engine, the U.S. will effectively be shut out of a more efficient engine design – at least from VW. While other manufacturers ranging from General Motors to Mercedes Benz are continuing to sell diesels for now, there are already questions about them.
Even if those other diesels prove to actually free of emissions cheating technology, which so far they have, there’s concern in automotive circles whether the problem has caused them to lose favor in the public’s eyes. It hasn’t been that long since diesel engines were thought to be slow and smoky and as a result they sold in small numbers.
All it really needed to put these efficient engines on the slow slide to death was to cast further doubt on them. In the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, that may already be happening.