Emissions scandal: VW received an explosive letter five years ago


It was an earthquake that has seldom happened in German economic history. On September 18, 2015, the California environmental authority CARB sent a letter to the US agencies of the VW Group. At first glance, the writing looks technical, relatively inconspicuous. But one of the biggest international industrial scandals originating in the Federal Republic of Germany occurs.

“VW has to initiate talks immediately in order to decide on appropriate corrective measures,” demands Annette Hebert, head of the department for monitoring emissions regulations. A discovered “non-compliance” with emission rules for diesel cars of the Germans should be “corrected” as soon as possible. The supervisor closes her three-page letter – with copies to colleagues from the national environmental authority EPA – in an initially very conciliatory tone: “We expect VW to cooperate fully with this investigation so that this matter can be tackled quickly and properly.”

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What then follows within a few days is beyond the imagination of many – including powerful car managers who have long considered themselves invulnerable. Volkswagen seems to be at its zenith: billions in profits, a job machine for years, only just behind Toyota, the world’s second-largest car company, brimming with self-confidence. But Europe’s largest company will soon have its back to the wall.

The sudden crash is triggered by systematic manipulation of pollutant values, which VW even tried to cover up after recalls in the USA. The suspicion was early in the world. Only during tests does a hidden software code ensure that toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) are removed as much as stated in the papers. On the other hand, in road operation, when no inspector is looking, the diesel vehicles blow many times the amount into the air.

Mid-September 2015: The US environmental protection agency EPA accuses the Volkswagen Group of equipping diesel cars built between 2009 and 2015 with software that tricked the tests for US environmental regulations. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) came to similar findings. Both authorities send complaints to VW. (Pictured: EPA headquarters in Washington D.C.)
(Image: EPA

“During a meeting on September 3, 2015, VW admitted to CARB and EPA that these vehicles were developed and manufactured with a” defeat device “that was supposed to bypass parts of the emissions control system,” the authorities say. Every “vehicle equipped in this way” violates US federal and state law.

So large-scale fraud that would have drastic consequences for the entire automotive industry. Even if VW is to this day the only company that admitted deliberate deceptions – although some in the group considered the general admission premature and individual questions of guilt still preoccupy the judiciary: It was a turning point for everyone. Daimler, BMW, Opel, Fiat, Mitsubishi – they and others were faced with accusations of at least working with lazy tricks and in legal gray areas when cleaning pollutants.

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