Diesel cheating is a story that just won’t go away. This week, German prosecutors descended on several Daimler offices and hauled away a treasure trove of documents and computers in their search for evidence the company has engaged in diesel cheating. This is not some small time operation. In all, 11 offices were raided by 230 police officers at the direction of 23 local and state prosecutors, according to the New York Times.
In a press release prior to the raids, the company said, “In connection with its preliminary investigations of known and unknown employees of Daimler AG due to suspicion of fraud and criminal advertising relating to the possible manipulation of exhaust-gas after-treatment in passenger cars with diesel engines, the Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office is about to search premises of Daimler AG at several locations in Germany.” It said it is cooperating with the investigation but declined any further comment.
The Rise Of Diesel
Americans never really caught diesel fever, but in Europe, sales of diesel-powered cars have been huge for decades. After the Arab oil embargoes in the 1970s, it became official government policy to encourage the manufacture and sale of diesel-powered automobiles because of their superior fuel economy. In many countries, diesels accounted for 50% or more of new car sales.
Fuel economy is what propelled diesel engines to prominence and fuel economy is what proved to be their undoing. As those same governments began imposing restrictions on diesel emissions, the car companies poured millions of dollars into finding ways to comply without diminishing the excellent fuel economy diesels were known for.
A Culture Of Cheating
There are two numbers new car shoppers pay attention to: 0-60 times and miles per gallon. Eking out an extra few kilometers per tankful could be the difference between being a sales leader or laggard. In their quest for sales, manufacturers around the globe engaged in extensive and elaborate cheating schemes.
In Europe, cars used for on-road testing were extensively modified. Slick tires inflated until they were rock hard were used. Brakes were backed off from their factory settings to eliminate drag. Camber and toe in were set to zero to reduce rolling resistance. Windshield wipers were removed and all the gaps between exterior panels were taped over to reduce turbulence. The cars themselves were rendered unsafe to drive in order to score the highest possible fuel economy ratings. Anecdotally, Mercedes was often rumored to be the most aggressive of all companies when it came to hacking its test cars to maximize fuel economy numbers.
In Asia. Mitsubishi just flat out lied about its fuel economy numbers and got away with it for almost 30 years before the roof fell in. After the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal broke in September, 2015, many people in Europe started calling for real world testing, but most countries have been reluctant to initiate such programs.
As the diesel cheating bubble continues to expand, government officials are pointing fingers at each other as everyone runs for cover. The Germans accuse Italian authorities of not enforcing emissions rules for cars manufactured in that country. The truth is, everybody has been cheating for decades and everyone involved in the industry knew about the cheating and did nothing to stop it.
Volkswagen Diesel Cheating “Most Elaborate In History”
The cheating schemes were often elaborate. A new report from the University of California San Diego this week says researchers have found the smoking gun that proves Volkswagen deliberately hacked the computer code controlling its diesel engines to activate emissions devices when it detected that emissions testing was underway and turn them back off again when real world driving resumed.
Lead investigator Kiriil Levchenko told the 38th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in the San Francisco that he and his team were able to find the offending code hiding in plain sight on the company’s own maintenance website. They also found corroboration on VW fan forums. “We were able to find the smoking gun,” he said. “We found the system and how it was used.” The offending code was utilized in Volkswagen Jetta, Golf, and Passat models as well as A and Q series cars sold by Audi. “We found evidence of the fraud right there in public view,” Levchenko said.
The code was label “acoustic condition,” meaning it appeared to most people as a way to control the sound of the engine. Diesel clatter is something many vehicle owners find objectionable. In reality, the code has nothing to do with adjusting the sound of the engine and everything to do with helping it pass emissions testing. “The Volkswagen defeat device is arguably the most complex in automotive history,” Levchenko said.
The Daimler Scheme Is Different
The system used by Daimler in its diesel-powered Mercedes vehicles involved a different workaround. Mercedes cars use a urea injection system to reduce emissions. The regulations allow such systems to be turned off to prevent excessive engine wear, usually during cold weather. Some manufacturers have been known to interpret that escape clause quite liberally, setting their urea systems to deactivate whenever the ambient temperature is below 80º Fahrenheit — in other words, most of the time.
The urea injection technique is what led Volkswagen astray. Former Volkswagen Group head Ferdinand Piech bragged his engineers could make their engines comply with the regulations without the added expense of urea injection. Then he fired those who couldn’t make it happen until he found someone who could. He didn’t care how they did it. Don’t ask, don’t tell became the rule at Volkswagen.
Fiat’s workaround was much simpler. It allegedly programmed its computers to shut off all diesel emissions controls after 26 minutes, 40 seconds. The testing protocol lasts precisely 20 minutes. No muss, no fuss. Just a straight out cheat that the company didn’t even try to hide.
Consequences For Volkswagen And Daimler?
The Volkswagen cheating scandal probe has officially ended in the US. All the civil and criminal court cases have been resolved. The new report may have repercussions in other countries, though. South Korea is pursuing criminal investigations and German authorities have yet to conclude their probe of the company.
Will the new actions taken against Daimler lead to significant civil and criminal penalties? That question is still pending, but if the old adage “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” holds true, news that 230 police officers have been carting off records and computers makes it seem like there are troubled waters ahead for Daimler and Mercedes.
It is interesting that the raids came the same week as German chancellor Angela Merkel participated in a ground breaking ceremony for Daimler’s new battery plant near Berlin. Sometimes it’s good to have friends in high places.
A tip of the hat to Leif Hansen for forwarding the UCSD story to our attention.