As I write this, it’s becoming clear that the Volkswagen scandal of Dieselgate is going to run and run for quite a while. If you thought that Toyota and Lexus got a kicking to their brand a few years ago, that will quite possibly pale into insignificance. Since the story broke, many people have been asking me for my views.
It’s now gradually emerging just how many cars have this evasive software installed globally and as it unfolds, the automotive and environmental governing bodies across the world take a close interest. Plus, of course, the litigation vultures start circling in ever smaller circles. This one will have so many angles that books will be written about it in years to come.
Here’s a few things that spring to mind, in no particular order, based on what information is out there right now.
What’s the big deal?
Well, the initial reaction in the USA, of course, was indignation. Lying to the US government and the public is never a good idea, especially when you get found out. The American diesel passenger car market is a tiny percentage of the total car sales each year and Volkswagen have been pushing hard to get diesel family cars established there. I guess they can kiss goodbye to that. The second thing of course, is that this wasn’t simply a manufacturer defect requiring embarrasing recall. This was a deliberate attempt to subversively ‘game’ the system and improve emissions certification. For those with a long memory, that’s right up there with Toyota’s World Rally Championship cheat all those years ago. Ingenious like watching a cat burglar at work. You admire it, but it’s pretty naughty….
It’s unclear right now exactly how this system worked, whether it is an integral part of the car’s engine mapping software, or whether it was a separate device. I’ve also been unable to ascertain what elements it altered to pass targets. For example, was it a fuel economy figure or a NoX figure? If NoX and other particulates, it may well be that owners will see little difference to the economy figures once the car has been recalled. The BBC are claiming that the system, allowed the engine to run legally on the test bed, but once out on the road, emitted Nitrogen Oxide pollutants 40 times higher than legally allowed.
Whatever the system is, it seems that it’s able to detect that the car is stationary but is being driven on rollers and that scenario triggers this extra setting of engine modes.
Personally, I’m surprised that it’s taken so long for this to happen and I’ll wager that they may not be alone. Given that much of modern car technology evolves from motorsport and that in motorsport, engineers have been trying for decades to hide data and tricks inside of ECU’s, it was just a matter of time before it happened on a road car.
In motorsport, rules are always considered to be a minor inconvenience to be bent until they creak, with the odd fracture taking place. As technology improved, motorsport regulators try things such as control ECU’s, which in turn leads the engineers to try and hide their technology ever deeper. The dominance of turbo diesels in endurance racing over this past decade is testament to the fact that Volkswagen Audi probably have a deeper understanding of this that anyone else on the planet. Everything from disc brakes to modern tyres were developed in the heat of motorsport. It’s inevitable that software dodges also filter down too. In motorsport, of course, it’s only cheating when you get caught. That competitive mentality doesn’t transfer well to a courtroom.
Apart from the lying element, why all the fuss?
What Volkswagen have been caught doing cannot be condoned. But to be frank, all modern cars are set up to ‘game’ the emmissions tests to varying degrees. Manufacturers know exactly what speeds and scenarios the readings are taken at, so the ECU is set up to optimise that figure, not for optimised real world driving. It’s the reason why many turbo diesel drivers complain of flat spots at certain RPM ranges that clear once you go beyond that point. I’d guess that it’s also the reason why my petrol engined Toyota Avensis used to give 45 mpg at 75 mph, but 33 mpg at 81 mph.
This lack of drivability and flat spots is one of the reasons why pretty much every diesel car owner I know has had it remapped. Companies like TuneIt supply software optimisation boxes that alter the engine performance in a positive way across the range, not just at specific points. So I think it’s fair to say that all turbo diesel cars are set up to obey emissions regs first with drivability second, but nobody will admit it. Every TDi car drives better after a quality remap by a tech that knows his stuff. Flat spots are gone, the car pulls more strongly from low rpm and through the range. The driver of a remapped car also has a tendency to shift earlier, improving real world economy still further.
If you want to take this car manufacturer strategy to the N’th degree, there’s actually a case for saying that the Volkswagen system is simply yet another ‘mode’ in the ECU. After all, we have ‘learning’ ECUs that have warm up modes, power modes and adaptive gearboxes. You could put your tongue deep in your cheek and say that it’s simply another mode. Though not many owners have much need for a rolling road at home….
Where does this leave us?
What started as Volkswagen USA problem has now gone global. Plus of course, there are other marques in the VAG group that run on this platform, with Audi, SEAT and Skoda under scrutiny, plus possibly even Porsche and Bugatti.
It’s now blindingly obvious that the testing system is broken. That’s not the car maker’s fault, they just build cars that fit the rules. And sometimes duck under them.. In my view this whole situation has arisen from a scenario where it’s apparent that diesel engines ultimately will never really be clean enough. Overly optimistic targets with unrealistic expectations have been set that, it would appear, can only be achieved by cheating. I’d like to think that the rules will change and that the farce will be replaced with something more meaningful. How that is done, though, is a very difficult subject indeed.
Finally, I’ve never been a fan of TDi. I’m in rare agreement of Clarkson when he called diesel The Fuel of Satan. The stuff always smells, both before you burn it and afterwards. The engines nearly always sound horrible, or at best tolerable and I’m sick of slipping over on the stuff on petrol forecourts. Hopefully, we’re moving towards a new set of technologies driven by hybrids such as the Lexis IS300h that deliver very low fuel consumption with none of the particulate issues of TDi. And of course, we have the prospect of silent turbine thrust of full electric.
If you can engineer in some turbocharged mid range into a hybrid petrol and an entertaining sequential shift feel to that CVT gearbox, then petrol and hybrid will finally win through.