VW Dieselgate one year later: what have we learned about diesel cars?

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Volkswagen TDI 'clean diesel' television ad screencap

Volkswagen TDI 'clean diesel' television ad screencap

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It's now a year and eight days since the EPA broke the news that Volkswagen had admitted to including "defeat device" software in almost half a million so-called "clean diesel" vehicles sold in the U.S. from 2009 through 2015.

That software detected when the cars were undergoing laboratory tests, and kept their emissions within legal limits during those tests, only to bypass the routines when the cars were on the open road.

The result was massive noncompliance with U.S. emission laws, and emissions of nitrogen oxides up to 38 times the legal limits.

DON'T MISS: Volkswagen diesel scandal - our complete coverage

Since that time, the VW diesel scandal has expanded in ways perhaps inconceivable that first day.

And it continues to ricochet around both the VW Group and the industry, with two pieces of news last week illustrating that point.

First, Stefan Knirsch, the head of R&D at Audi, was implicated in the scandal. His immediate departure from the company was announced this morning.

2015 Audi A3 TDI, New York City, Nov 2014

2015 Audi A3 TDI, New York City, Nov 2014

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According to the internal investigation conducted by law firm Jones Day, the report said, he knew about the use of "defeat device" software in the company's 3.0-liter V-6 diesels, fitted to Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen models in the U.S.

Then, on September 18—the actual one-year anniversary of the EPA announcement—the European group Transport & Environment issued a damning report on the real-world emissions of European diesels.

Its analyses showed that every diesel brand in Europe emitted more pollutants in real-world use than do the very latest VW Group models.

CHECK OUT: Most VW diesel owners want the buyback, not a modified car

But even as news continues to arrive, it's a good time to look at what we've learned from a year of the VW diesel scandal.

At six months, we asked the same question, and many of those lessons remain the same—though their relative importance has shifted considerably.

The most important one, we think, is a topic we didn't address at all six months ago.

2012 Ford Focus ECOnetic, high gas-mileage turbodiesel model for Europe

2012 Ford Focus ECOnetic, high gas-mileage turbodiesel model for Europe

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(1) The future for diesel in Europe appears to be drawing to a close

Volkswagen's blatant cheating has focused public attention not only in North America, but also in Europe, on the gaping differences between real-world emissions and those derived from known laboratory tests.

At first, many Europeans blamed the cheating on unrealistically low U.S. emission limits. But roughly those same limits arrive for the EU next January, bringing its cars down to the same level as that in effect in the U.S. since January 2008.

And over time, the VW diesel results coalesced with simmering discontent among European buyers over the far lower fuel efficiency of their cars in real-world use compared to the publicized test results.

In some cases, the difference was as much as 30 percent—far higher than the 10-percent leeway most consumers are willing to accept. And the same tests are used to measure both fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions.

Disparate news items from around the world, on manufacturers cheating or misrepresenting test results (Mitsubishi in Japan, various makers in Europe), brought VW's actions into focus as simply the most extreme in a widespread industry pattern of complying with the rules but not the intent of emission limits worldwide.


 
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