Volkswagen group may have had a worse than usual hangover this new year, as the US Department of Justice announced that they would be taking it to federal court over the Dieselgate scandal. On January 4th, the DoJ, on behalf of the Environment Protection Agency, filed a civil claim against the automaker alleging that nearly 600,000 vehicles infringe the clean air act emissions requirements. The sword has been hanging over Volkswagen since the discovery of the “defeat device” which enables certain diesel fuelled models to operate in a much lower emission ‘test mode’ during the EPA’s test cycle, allowing them to pass emissions requirements. When out on the road in normal use, these vehicles produce up to 40 times the test limit for NOx, substances known to be linked with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Given that statisticians have already indicated that the extra pollution produced by the infringing vehicles may have caused more than 50 premature deaths, and caused around $450 million in social costs over the period they were produced, it is unsurprising that the ongoing crisis has lead to substantial damage to its reputation. Also unsurprising has been the dramatic fall in Volkswagen’s stock price and a nearly 10% drop in sales in December 2015, compared with December 2014. Its ongoing pain is unlikely to be resolved rapidly, however, with the DoJ taking to Twitter to announce the action – and damning the company further.
The civil complaint lodged by the DoJ covers over 580,000 vehicles, including both 2.0 and 3.0 liter models from Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen and seeks both injunctive relief and civil penalties against the manufacturer, putting it on the hook for up to $48 billion in damages and requiring rectification work on the affected vehicles. Although it’s likely that a settlement for a much lower sum will be reached (Toyota paid $34 million in a $58 billion suit just over a decade ago), perhaps worse for the automaker is the potential beyond this federal action that, with multiple class action suits pending, there are more possibilities for punitive damages, and there is likely to be ongoing damage to Volkswagen’s brands.
Following the announcement, angry Volkswagen and Audi owners vented their frustrations on Twitter, asking whether they would receive the money awarded, and demanding that Volkswagen buy back offending vehicles. With Volkswagen’s brand chief Herbert Deiss admitting that to bring older vehicles into line “the intrusion into the car will be quite significant”, it is likely that these cries will become louder.
Although the DoJ are hampered in their US investigation by the DMCA, European researchers have used a variety of exploits to examine the actual code from an infringing ECU. A damning presentation recently given at C2C3 indicated that the affected vehicle clearly shows it has rarely been in the ‘regular’ emissions mode, and has spent the majority of its time in modes that produces vastly more pollution. Not only that, but they were able to demonstrate the criteria for vehicle speed and conditions that must be met to enable the non-infringing mode, conditions that near perfectly match the requirements of the EPA’s test design.
With the EPA’s Assistant Administrator indicating that, so far, Volkswagen have been unable to provide plans to rectify emissions on affected vehicles that meets with the EPA’s approval, things are looking somewhat tricky for Volkswagen’s conventionally fuelled models. Despite this Herbert Diess indicated that Volkswagen won’t be abandoning diesel just yet, stating “I wouldn’t give up diesel, even in the U.S.” to journalists at CES.
Perhaps the only silver lining are persistent rumours that it is not the only company involved in this behaviour, and the suggestion that the exploits which have revealed the specific details of Volkswagen’s deceptive firmware may yet reveal other companies attempting to pull off the same trick.
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