How Volkswagen Lied To Consumers And The Government: An Explainer

One of the biggest corporate scandals in recent memory started unfolding this weekend, as it came out that between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen deliberately misrepresented the emissions standards on their cars. It’s screwed over their customers, it’s got the government on their case, and the company could eat an $18 billion fine. Here’s what’s happening.

Crap, I own a Volkswagen, how screwed am I?

Is your Volkswagen a 2009 to 2015 TDI Volkswagen Golf, Jetta, Beetle or Audi A3, or a 2014 to 2015 Passat? Then you are probably in for a lot of headaches, and your car is likely going to be temporarily illegal to drive very soon.

Wait, WHAT?! Why is my car suddenly junk?

Because Volkswagen spent six years lying to the government about emissions and mileage. According to the New York Times, Volkswagen installed a “defeat device,” a tool to that knew when a car was being tested for emissions and artificially lowered emissions of smog-causing pollutants. Ironically, their clean diesel claims are what got them busted: An independent lab found discrepancies in road performance.

Wait, don’t get outraged yet, because it gets even worse. Volkswagen has spent years gloating about how unlike other diesel vehicles, which need to use urea injection systems to lower pollutants, you could just fill your tidy Volkswagen with diesel and drive on your way. Their entire U.S. marketing strategy is built around how you don’t have to sacrifice power and speed, just buy a Volkswagen clean diesel! It was so popular nearly a quarter of their new car sales were diesels.

Urea? Isn’t that in pee?

Yuuuuuuup. Your body uses it to remove nitrogen. It also happens to be useful in removing nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide from diesel exhaust emissions. Why would you care about that? Let’s ask the EPA about nitrogen oxides!

Current scientific evidence links short-term NO2 exposures, ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours, with adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma.

Also, studies show a connection between breathing elevated short-term NO2 concentrations, and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially asthma.

Oh. Uh, that’s bad. How much of this crap was Volkswagen pumping into the atmosphere?

The jury’s out, but so far it’s been reported that the emissions were ten to 40 times the acceptable federal standards.

I assume Volkswagen is going to pay for this.

The EPA will have to do tests, but currently it’s looking like Volkswagen is going to be shelling out $37,000 per car, or $18 billion, in total fines. And this is before their customers sue them for false advertising, or before any wrongful death lawsuits hit the courts. When all is said and done, Volkswagen is going to shell out billions. As for criminal charges, well, the Department of Justice is investigating.

Is there a recall yet?

Not yet, but it’s really a matter of when, not if. In theory, all Volkswagen has to do is flip on this code to apply to the car all the time, but the government may not accept that solution. If not, retrofitting the cars may be so expensive that it’s cheaper to take them off the road and pay back the customer. This isn’t even getting into state emissions tests; there’s a pretty good chance that one way or another, most of these vehicles are legally not allowed on the road.

What about other diesel vehicles?

Good question. It’s not clear yet how far Volkswagen’s deceit went, or for that matter whether other diesel cars also have this defeat device; the government is investigating it now.

Can I keep driving my car?

Right now, yes. But keep an eye out and get alternative transportation lined up; the government will likely act quickly.