In 2006, George W. Bush was president, David Bowie was alive, and the world hadn’t yet heard of iPhones, Instagram, or ISIS. But in Germany, Volkswagen managers had already begun making plans to cheat on emissions tests with VW, Audi, and Porsche diesels.
An internal report from Volkswagen, leaked to Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung, explains that software cheats to help those vehicles pass emissions tests were an open secret among engineers and managers in the automaker’s engine development unit. And no one did anything about it — well, almost no one.
DIESELGATE: THE EARLY YEARS
Last month, Volkswagen’s board chair, Dieter Poetsch, explained that seeds of the Dieselgate scandal were sown in 2005. It was then that engineers began to realize their “clean diesels” were still too dirty to meet American emissions standards. And so, instead of going to the company’s higher-ups and explaining that they couldn’t meet their goals, Volkswagen’s engineers devised a cheat.
They team took engine management software provided by Bosch, then tweaked it. (Bosch, for its part, has denied any knowledge of this.)
The update allowed diesel engines to identify when emissions tests were being conducted. When they were, the engine’s normal controls kicked in, keeping emissions within legal levels. When the tests were over, the controls switched off, allowing the cars to spew up to 40 times the legal amount of pollutants into the air.
Volkswagen employees were confident in their plan, because they believed that the cheat couldn’t be detected under normal conditions. According to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, they began tinkering with the software in November 2006, but it’s unclear when they began applying it to production models. Volkswagen has previously admitted that the cheat was first used on vehicles from the 2009 model year.
In 2011, one Volkswagen employee finally got cold feet and approached a manager outside the engine development unit, explaining what was going on. However, that manager did nothing to address the problem and didn’t bring it to the attention of anyone further up the administrative chain.
The would-be whistleblower is now part of the larger Volkswagen investigation.
Volkswagen has said that its internal investigation is ongoing, and that it will begin sharing data from the probe in April. In response to the report in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Volkswagen has said that it has no comment on the “speculation”.
If the report is true, however, it suggests that the number of people who knew about the diesel cheat may have been significantly larger than previously thought. To date, Volkswagen has insisted that the illegal activities were known only to a very small group of engineers. Stay tuned…