VW emissions scandal - the latest details

All the cars affected by the VW emissions scandal and recall information

BuyaCar team
Aug 19, 2016
Rasulov / Shutterstock

For years, engineers from rival companies had wondered how Volkswagen managed to make its cars so clean and efficient without having to resort to the expensive and bulky technology of rivals.

And in September 2015, they found out: the German company had been caught cheating in America. It installed software in its cars that recognised when they were undergoing official emissions tests and cut the levels of harmful gases to within legal limits. Out on the road, the level of toxic emissions soared.

Similar software was installed in British cars too. The result is that 1.2 million UK motorists are now being asked to take their cars into dealerships so that the cheat software can be removed and their cars modified to bring them within legal exhaust limits.

The rest of the car industry is also coming under scrutiny too because it's not just Volkswagens that produce high levels of harmful emissions on the road, which are far in excess of the levels measured in laboratory tests.

In July, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee heavily criticised the Government for not spotting “widespread test cheating”. The role of the British Vehicle Certification Agency, which is responsible for ensuring that cars comply with regulations, was highlighted because it was a client of car manufacturers while it was also meant to be testing them.

The committee also said it was “deeply unfair” that affected VW owners in Europe weren’t getting compensation. In the US owners have been offered payouts of up to $10,000 (£7,600).

Across Europe, diesel’s fall from grace has been dramatic. From being hailed as a key weapon in reducing climate-changing CO2 emissions, diesel is now being demonized as a prime source of toxic gases plaguing big cities. New London mayor Sadiq Khan has said he wants to introduce a Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge, from next year on vehicles entering central London, Most cars built before 2005 would be affected.

Michael Sheridan / Shutterstock

Is my car affected by the emissions scandal?

After VW was forced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to admit it cheated on US tests, it eventually confessed to installing similar software, known as a defeat device on 11 million vehicles worldwide, the bulk in Europe.

In Britain, VW’s second biggest European market, 1.2 million cars built between 2009 and 2015 are affected. These use a type of engine known as EA189. It was built in different sizes, with 1.2-litre, 1.6-litre and 2-litre versions sold. It wasn't just used in Volkswagens, but in the company's sister brands too, so Audi, Skoda and Seat drivers are affected. The UK numbers break down like this:

  • Volkswagen 508,276
  • Audi 393,450
  • Skoda 131,569
  • Seat 76,773
  • VW commercial vehicles 79,838

Owners of vehicles caught up in the emissions scandal should have been contacted by their dealer to warn them that their car contains the defeat device software. They are safe to drive.

VW and the other brands will ask owners of each car to take it to a local dealership for repair. It is expected to take more than a year for all cars to have the modifications.

When will my emissions scandal car be repaired?

Fixes for the affected cars with 2.0-litre diesel engines started in May across all brands. VW says that 230,000 letters have gone out to owners of cars such the Golf (above), Tiguan, Audi A5 and Skoda Octavia. As of July, it says 55,000 cars have been fixed.

Owners of all 1.2 million UK cars affected across all VW brands will have “some form of communication” by the end of the year about their fix, according to the company.

All cars will have software re-progammed to improve emissions that should take about half an hour, the maker says. VW’s 1.6-litre EA189 diesel also needs to be fitted with a piece of plastic called a flow transformer ahead of an air sensor. This takes the work to around an hour.

VW claims the fix will have no negative effect on performance, fuel economy or noise, which begs the question of why the cars were not engineered legally in the first place. The manufacturer says that the recall makes use of the latest knowledge and technology 

Do I have to take a car affected by the emissions scandal to be repaired?

If your vehicle is affected by the emissions scandal, then it's likely to be emitting harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) at higher levels than it should be. These have been linked to breathing difficulties and early deaths. However, this is not a compulsory recall and nobody is obliged to take their car to a garage. As NOx is not tested during an MoT, then it won't fail on this basis.

If you don't take your car in to be recalled, then it is still likely to be updated automatically at your next service. 

Are other cars affected by the emissions scandal?

Tests by independent agencies in Europe have shown that certain new cars from Renault, Vauxhall, Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Fiat, Hyundai, Jaguar, Porsche, and Peugeot emit higher levels of NOx on the road than they do in official tests that are conducted in a laboratory. This doesn't mean that the manufacturers are acting illegally because they are only required to pass a laboratory-based emissions test.

That laboratory test has been widely discredited because it does not replicate how cars are used in the real-world and it is due to be replaced next year.

The findings that cars regularly emit higher levels of emissions than in official tests has alarmed environmental campaigners. “Volkswagen represents the tip of a huge iceberg,” European green pressure group Transport & Environment (T&E) claimed in a report published in June. 

In light of the concern over emissions, Mercedes, Vauxhall and Renault have said they will fix certain affected diesels on a voluntary basis, even though they comply with regulations. The details are as follows:

  • Renault Owners of cars with engines that meet the latest standards, known as Euro 6b, will offered a voluntary software update from October this year to improve NOx emissions. Renault UK couldn’t say which cars this affects, or the quantity.
  • Vauxhall A voluntary software update to improve emissions on diesel cars fitted with SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) NOx filters started in August. Again, the firm has given no information on the numbers involved or the models in the UK, although European numbers total 57,000.
  • Mercedes Owners of the Mercedes A-class and B-class with a 1.5-litre diesel engine will be offered a voluntary fix to improve emissions. The firm says around 26,000 cars are affected in the UK. No timetable has been given.

As with the Volkswagen recall, these voluntary measures are not compulsory, but may be carried out automatically at your next service if you don't take your car in to the dealership when requested.

How did VW cheat in the emissions scandal?

VW programmed a ‘defeat device’ into the vehicle’s computer system that understood it was being tested in a lab environment and switched on all the emissions devices, that help reduce NOx. On the open road the emissions devices were either switched off, or used sparingly.

T&E also accuse manufacturers of taking advantage of legal loopholes to switch off emissions control devices. Makers claim they’re allowed to switch off devices when temperatures fall below a certain temperature - which can be as high as 17C - under EU rules designed to protect the engine. 

Why did VW cheat on emissions?

An investigation into the scandal is still ongoing but in general, emission control devices are expensive, difficult to package - especially in smaller cars - and often harm fuel economy. One of the most effective ways of reducing emissions is to use an additive - called AdBlue - which is injected into the exhaust. This requires a separate tank, which needs periodic refilling, increasing hassle and cost to owners.

What will change after the emissions scandal?

The current outmoded system for testing fuel economy and vehicle emissions in Europe will be replaced in 2017 by the WLTP (Worldwide harmonised Light Vehicles Test Procedure). Instead of using a laboratory test to calculate a car's emissions and fuel economy, it will include a Real Driving Emissions (RDE) road-test that uses testing equipment lashed to the car’s exhaust pipe to give a more accurate figure of what’s actually being pumped out.

The European Commission is also looking at ways of ending the cosy relationship between testing agencies and the manufacturers.

Volkswagen has announced that it will rebuild its reputation by flooding the market with green cars. It plans to launch 30 electric cars by 2025, which may include the Budd-e concept car (above). VW will also fit exhaust filters to its petrol cars from next year. These capture tiny soot particles in exhaust gases that can cause lung problems. They have only been common on diesel cars until now.

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