Volkswagen blames emissions cheating on 'chain of errors'

Manufacturer claims issue 'largely concluded.' Others beg to differ

Volkswagen has released the initial findings of an ongoing internal review in the emissions scandal that has engulfed it in recent months and concluded that it was a few bad apples and a "chain of errors."

At a press conference at the car manufacturer's headquarters in Wolfsburg, its chairman, Hans Dieter Potsch, tried to put the scandal behind them. An accompanying press release was headlined "CO2 issue largely concluded."

That may be wishful thinking however.

Volkswagen acknowledged that nine of its models were breaking emissions rules but that only 36,000 cars would need to be recalled (initially it was estimated 800,000 may need to be brought back).

A smaller problem than first feared is the message. And that was carried over to how the decision to introduce a device that specifically cheated on the emissions tests was approved.

Far from being a deep problem, "we still believe a relatively small number of employees were directly involved in manipulation," said Poetsch. "I will not speculate on whether there will be further personnel consequences." Volkswagen has since suspended nine managers and Audi technical boss Dr Ulrich Hackenberg is going to step down.

It's also not a wider cultural problem because it all happened long ago in a different time, according to Poetsch. "There was a tolerance for breaking the rules," he said, noting that the decision to break the rules was made a decade ago.

And the entire process of knowingly introducing "defeat devices" was a "chain of errors that were allowed to happen," according to Potsch.

America! America!

The real issue is, and was, not Europe but the United States. The US has more stringent diesel emissions rules and Volkswagen saw its cars as a way into the market. According to Volkswagen, this push into the US led to an intense debate over which kind of emissions technology to use.

Broadly, some were in favor of technology called selective catalytic reduction (SCR) that uses a chemical to neutralize nitrogen oxide emissions and doesn't impact fuel economy or car performance.

However, it is bigger, more expensive, and it requires topping up with chemicals every now and again, and that needs to be done by a qualified mechanic.

In contrast, NOX traps are simpler, less expensive, and don't need topping up. But they are less reliable and they cut fuel economy by a few percentage points. The executives that pushed for SCR were edged out of the company, and those in favor of NOX traps won out..

Somewhere along the way, the engineers decided that the solution to passing emissions tests while still pushing the marketing message of high fuel economy was to create a device that would engage the control system when it was stationary and being run (i.e., when under testing) and then pull it back when the car was moving. In other words, cheat.

Volkswagen did end up adding the more expensive SCR approach to its higher-end cars from 2009, but the lower-end cars stuck with NOX until this year.

While Volkswagen downplayed the impact in Europe, the bigger problem remains the United States, where there are around 500,000 diesel cars that need to be fixed. Volkswagen said it was "optimistic" that it would be able to find a technical solution soon that will resolve the issue.

Money makes the world go around

This whole admission was carefully pulled together by Volkswagen and clearly aimed at limiting its liability and making the problem seem far smaller than many feared.

Based on the reports of those that have followed the scandal closely however, the company's hope that it is now "largely concluded" seems optimistic at best.

In Germany, Volkswagen drivers are reportedly being denied their driving plates and car papers at the transport authority over concerns they are not legal.

Press reports have been brutal. Germany's Deutsche Welle has said the company needs "more than lofty words," and points out that many of its head engineers have been caught cheating and until very recently denied it.

It is understandable that the company wants to downplay the problems and put the scandal behind them, but based on its presentation of the unfinished internal investigation, it looks very much as though it has still failed to face up to its significant failings.

The affair is far from "largely concluded" the public's eyes. ®

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