Diesel cars are hugely popular with motorists, mainly because they use less fuel and are therefore cheaper to run than petrol vehicles. They also have lower carbon dioxide emissions, which makes them more environmentally friendly. However, diesels have higher nitrogen oxide emissions than their petrol counterparts, which can have serious health effects. To reduce these harmful emissions, manufacturers would have to alter the performance of their cars which could then lead to a drop in sales.
German car giants, Volkswagen, have long been a world leader in diesel car production and have been targeting the US market in recent years. They claimed their cars were relatively non-polluting and independent tests backed up their claims. These low emission tests were carried out in laboratories and the Volkswagen cars passed every time.
In the last number of years, the International Council on Clean Transportation, working with researchers at West Virginia University, decided to test cars on the road, as well as in the laboratory. The results were incredible. Now, these same Volkswagen cars were emitting more than 20 times the permitted limit of nitrogen oxide.
It then emerged that since 2009, Volkswagen had inserted special code into its vehicle software. The code could tell if the car was being tested for nitrogen oxide emissions in a lab or being driven on the road. When in a laboratory, the vehicle automatically turned its pollution controls on, while on the road the controls were automatically turned off. Volkswagen had been cheating the tests.
It is estimated that about eleven million cars worldwide are fitted with this code, with about 80,000 vehicles in Ireland alone. Audi, Seat and Skoda are also part of the Volkswagen company, with many of their vehicles sharing the same diesel engine known as EA189, fitted with the cheating software.
It is now planned that all the vehicles will be recalled by their manufacturers to have the offending code removed. Volkswagen has set aside €6.5 billion to cover the cost of the scandal, but it’s unlikely to be enough. Although Volkswagen were keen to stress that these vehicles are perfectly safe and roadworthy, Chief Executive, Martin Winterkorn, has been replaced, with many more heads expected to roll within the company over the coming weeks.
I feel satisfaction that we have contributed to something that will have a major impact on public health," said John German, from the International Council on Clean Transportation.