Smoke and Mirrors: Volkswagen’s Unethical Emissions Testing Practices

by Samantha Zielinski & Kartik Karkala  

In September 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Volkswagen had installed “defeat devices” on its diesel vehicles with the intention of cheating on emissions tests [1]. These devices were able to detect when the diesel vehicles were being tested in the lab, enter “test mode” and adjust emissions to be within regulated amounts. However, on road, these vehicles actually emitted up to 40 times the allowed amount [1].

In this scandal, the major excess pollutants are nitric oxides (NOx), which cause serious health concerns [1]. The scandal clearly violates the Environment Quality Act stating that everyone has the right to a healthy environment [2]. Essentially, actions or operations that are potentially harmful to the environment are prohibited by law, making this an unethical move by Volkswagen.

In a study conducted at MIT, scientists believe the excess emissions generated by 3 million affected vehicles will cause approximately 60 deaths in the U.S. and close to 1200 deaths in Europe, shaving a decade off of each life [3].

The engineers who designed the defeat device violated the Engineers’ Code of Ethics which states that  “...engineers must respect their obligations towards humans and take into account the consequences of the performance of their work on the environment and on the life, health and property of every person” [4]. Furthermore, as they contributed to the illegal practice of the profession, their employer, Volkswagen, is vicariously liable for the damages [5].

When Volkswagen’s emissions cheating - dubbed “dieselgate” by the media - was first revealed, the company’s stock dropped, losing 35% of its market value [6]. Then CEO, Martin Winterkorn, was forced to resign, stating: “I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group… though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part” [7]. Though he denied knowledge of the devices, he is currently under criminal investigation, along with his replacement, Matthias Muller [8].

In 2016, Volkswagen entered two settlements to resolve violations to the Clean Air Act [1]. In January 2017, the company was found guilty in U.S. District Court on three felony counts: conspiracy, obstruction of justice and introducing imported merchandise into the United States by means of false statements [11]. On top of reparations paid to over 590,000 diesel car owners in North America, VW paid a 2.8 billion penalty as a result of the criminal conviction [1].

In an interview conducted with Karen Jensen, a consumer who recently purchased a non-diesel Volkswagen Golf, she stated that at first she considered the fallout of the scandal in her decision. However, the fact that she wasn’t purchasing a diesel car from the company also influenced her decision to purchase the vehicle. This reflects a general consumer opinion that vehicles not directly involved in the scandal can be purchased, regardless of the company’s dishonesty and lack of concern for the environment.

On Twitter, Volkswagen received negative sentiments from some vehicle owners who bought their cars hoping to lower emissions, but ended up with 40 times more than expected. In a poll of 400 U.S. VW buyers, only 4% said they would reconsider buying their vehicle, and 42% said they would be less likely to buy it in the future because of the scandal [9].

Despite the horrendous crisis, Volkswagen has returned to profitability in 2016, being the world’s largest automaker. Also, their sales went up 9.4 percent in China last year, showing how overall consumer behavior was hardly affected worldwide [10]. Dieselgate was indeed a setback for the brand but they continue to top sales charts, meaning that the public eventually tends to forgive and forget. Though it’s not easy for VW to sustain the growth, by promising incentives and a range of electric vehicles by 2025, they aim to recover their reputation in the market.


Kartik is a final year undergraduate student (U4) in Computer Engineering at McGill University. His interests mostly lie in frontend web development, IOT, and open source projects. For his design project, he is currently in a team developing an application which automates synchronization of tutorials with GitHub source code commits, and it focuses mainly on version control and automation using build tools.

Samantha is in the last year of her Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University. For her final year project, she is currently working on designing a robotic model of the spine to study back problems, but her interests also include control systems and aerospace engineering.



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