This story originally ran October 8, 2015, just a few weeks after it was discovered that new diesel Volkswagens and Audis ran undisclosed software that allowed the cars to cheat on their US federal emissions tests. This week was the two-year anniversary of the explosive news, and we’re resurfacing this story to take another look at the history of automakers gaming regulations. Since this story ran in 2015, Volkswagen agreed to a multi-billion dollar settlement with 2.0L diesel vehicle customers in 2016, and in 2017, researchers were able to get a more detailed look at the code that made the diesels’ driving so dirty.
In mid-September, the US Environmental Protection Agency dropped a bomb on Volkswagen Group, the German company that owns Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, and other notable car brands. The EPA sent the umbrella company a Notice of Violation, explaining that it discovered “defeat devices” on Volkswagen and Audi diesel passenger cars from 2009 and later.
The defeat devices—actually less a “device” than code on the cars’ electronic control module that detects whether a car is in a lab or on the road—were preventing the cars’ emissions control systems from working properly while the car was operating under normal driving conditions, likely boosting the car’s performance or fuel efficiency rating or both. The EPA said that nearly 500,000 of these diesel cars were caught spewing emissions well in excess of the federal rules, sending the company’s stock into a tailspin.