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The Volkswagen emissions scandal explained

Carlton Boyce / 24 September 2015

What is the VW emissions test cheating scandal all about and will it affect drivers in the UK?

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Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of the Volkswagen Group, has admitted that up to 11 million vehicles could be affected in its emissions test cheating scandal. The news wiped billions from the company’s value.

But what does it all mean for consumers?

What has VW done?

Volkswagen and Audi fitted cars in the USA with a piece of electronic software that detected when it was having its exhaust emissions tested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

When activated, the software turned on the full range of emissions controls, controls that may not have been as effective in real-world conditions as they were under the artificial condition of an EPA test cycle.

The result is that the cars affected could emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than the test results showed.

"Our company was dishonest, with EPA, the California Air Resources Board, and with [the public]," Michael Horn, VW’s US CEO said. "In my German words, we totally screwed up.” 

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What are nitrogen oxides?

Nitrogen oxides are a family of gases that react with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air to produce smog on sunny, hot days. 

Smog can, the EPA claims, worsen the affects of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma in sufferers.

Which cars are affected?

The 482,000 affected cars are the VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf, and Passat, and Audi A3 fitted with Type EA189 diesel engines and sold in the USA between 2009 and 2014.

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What does it all mean for me?

If you live in the UK or Europe it may well mean absolutely nothing, even if you’ve bought one of the affected models.

The Volkswagen Group, which comprises VW, Audi, SEAT and Skoda, insists that only cars sold in the USA are affected and that all its European cars meet the latest stringent EU6 emissions regulations, although it admits that: “Further internal investigations conducted to date have established that the relevant engine management software is also installed in other Volkswagen Group vehicles with diesel engines. For the majority of these engines the software does not have any effect.”

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Have other manufacturers been cooking the books too?

At this stage we just don’t know but industry experts are working overtime to find out.

If the problem does turn out to be a global one, then the impact in Europe is likely to be even greater given the high numbers of diesel cars sold here compared to the number sold in the USA, where petrol is still the preferred fuel and comparatively few buyers choose diesel.

This could yet turn out to be the automotive industry’s equivalent of the Libor scandal that rocked the financial world, increasing our suspicion that manufacturers see the official fuel emissions test cycle as a game rather than something that helps the consumer make an informed decision.

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What will the long-term impact be?

VW’s famous advertising slogan: “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” will now come back to haunt the company and it will take decades to rebuild its shattered reputation.

It has set aside £4.7 billion to cover the costs of dealing with the issue, although the actual costs are expected to be even higher: the EPA suggests that fines of up to £24,000 per car could be levied, which would lead to a final bill of more than £18 billion. Nor have criminal charges been ruled out.

But the problem is much greater than one company cheating; car buyers are growing tired of discovering that their car’s actual fuel consumption is lower than the official tests say it will be, and this scandal can only further damage the trust between manufacturer and consumer.

Have you been affected? What do you think about the scandal? Please scroll down and leave a comment.

For tips and useful information, browse our motoring articles.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.