Skyside and Equity Earth recently completed the first phase of a Values naming exercise with top business coach, Graham Kiggan. Early in the day, Graham read us a corporate values statement and asked us to identify the company. We were all wrong. It was Volkswagen’s. While we take no joy from Volkswagen’s troubles, its difficulties are a lesson for us all. The story is particularly relevant for those of us working in vehicle emissions testing. 

Faster, Higher, Farther: A modern vehicle emissions horror story 

Jack Ewing tells the story in impressive detail and yet still manages to present the story as a thriller. He captures the personalities of the managers and officials that defined the saga, mixing science with candid observations. Along the way, we learn much about why this went so wrong for Volkswagen. In the end, it cost 22 billion dollars in fines and settlements, but the damage to reputations, the brand and the change in strategy that the measurements foretold, make this a modern tale that should be required reading for all compliance managers and directors involved with environmental issues. I read the book last year and find echoes in many of my day-to-day observations in vehicle emissions testing.

Where it all started

Vehicles are prime sources of air pollution, contributing to nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and organic compound emissions. There is a continuous increase in fuel and car regulations as part of the ongoing quest to reduce vehicle emissions. Volkswagen got behind a common-rail diesel engine that seemed to set new standards for fuel efficiency, performance and emissions. The engine used a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system to deal with the emissions of nitric oxide. This sprays a mixture of urea and water into the exhaust-housed catalyst, converting, NO to N2 and water. 

The problem with this system is twofold. The vehicle needs a second tank to hold the urea solution, and the SCR drew power from the engine, reducing performance. Volkswagen further reasoned that drivers would be reluctant to keep refilling the urea tank, and so kept the capacity to a minimum. (We find this with our Mercedes Vito vans, which seem to go into a limp mode, demanding Ad Blue refills at inopportune moments).

How it all went wrong 

So what to do – reduce health impacts or limit refilling while creating a sportier drive? Their answer lay in the increasingly sophisticated engine management system. As the number of 

sensors in the car grew, they could tell how it was being driven. Especially, they could tell whether it was being used in an emission test where the car would follow a pre-defined, standardised test cycle. For instance, the rolling road meant that the steering wheel would not move and that the air conditioning would be off. In these situations, the SCR would be cranked up to full. Out on the real road, however, it was a different story. 

It took a group of scientists working in West Virginia to first record the discrepancy. Ewing makes the point that air pollution science is not a glamorous calling and that it took this group of immigrants and out-of-way people, working in an obscure discipline, to unearth this scandal. They told the story often, but it was not until the EPA in California picked it up that momentum started to build. They demanded answers and Volkswagen kept stalling. 

What have we learnt? 

Several lessons emerge from the book. It is important to recognise that Volkswagen was not the only motor manufacturer implicated in using defeat devices. Ewing makes out that they were the most intransigent. When the edifice fell, it fell harder because there was a distinct sense that Volkswagen had been obstructive. We see this often in our negotiations with authorities in our much smaller situations. 

There is also a clear indication that good data is as much about experimental design as it is about measurement. The testing scenario was repeatable but largely fictitious. We need to interrogate our own measurement design to make sure we are not inadvertently contributing to misleading data. 

In the end, the work of a handful of dedicated scientists and resolute officials changed how we will commute for the better. Volkswagen peered into the abyss, changed management and approach, but emerged. It’s a salutary tale for all of us that toil in the unglamorous but critical arena of public health and air pollution. 

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