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How VW aced diesel emissions tests (hint: like Tom Brady, only in reverse)

More information is coming out on the specifics of how Volkswagen managed to do so well on diesel emissions testing. Recall how Tom Brady allegedly lowered the air pressure in his footballs to make them easier to catch? VW did the opposite, overinflating the tires to give them less resistance. It also mixed diesel fuel into the motor oil to reduce internal friction and improve economy. This from the German newspaper Bild am Sontag, quoting VW engineers and internal reports.

Separately, VW in the US is offering a make-good of $ 1,000 to owners of VW diesels: $ 500 as a Visa prepaid credit card that can be used anywhere and $ 500 in credit to be used at a VW dealership for services, accessories, or possibly toward a new VW. Taking VW’s money doesn’t affect the owners’ rights to seek other recourse, the company says. If you paid $ 30,000 for your VW diesel, that’s a 3.3% rebate.

Where VW and owners stand

Over the summer, it came to light that VW diesels could sense when they were being emissions-tested and only then did the car’s software put them in lowest-emissions mode. At other times, the cars ran dirtier. The number of cars affected has climbed into the millions. Sales of VW diesels were halted in the US. Audi and Porsche, other brands affiliated with Volkswagen, have been linked tothe emissions problem. The liability might approach $ 100 billion, possibly more than the company is worth.

VW_2015_jetta_tdi_4220

Inflategate: The crisis continues to build

The German newspaper said it talked with several Volkswagen engineers and learned that tampering with the testing process began in 2013, the year after departed CEO Martin Winterkorn said VW would reduce CO2 emissions 30% by 2015. VW’s technical wizards found the goal impossible to meet through engineering wizardry. Instead, they turned to trickery.

One tactic was to increase tire pressure to 3.5 bar or 51 pounds per square inch, 10-15 psi higher than most cars run at. A stiffer tire has less rolling resistance and better fuel economy. A tire pumped up that high, especially with low-profile tires, might be more susceptible to blowouts on potholes. It would also be less comfortable for passengers. Lower pressure improves the ride in cars and makes footballs easier to catch. Until the league catches you doing it and proves its case. Here, VW appears to be in hotter water than the New England Patriots.

Another trick was to mix diesel fuel into the motor oil, supposedly to make the car run smoother and use less fuel. It’s not clear if VW meant on cars built for customers or only for tested vehicles. Diesel is a waxy fuel with some lubricating properties — certainly more than gasoline — but thinner than motor oil, so it’s unclear if engine wear might be affected.

Giving customers a bone

2016 VW Passatt

Monday’s announcement of $ 1,000 awards to diesel owners drew some immediate pushback, particularly from lawyers who a) have a deep understanding of credit card rules in South Dakota (where the VW credit cards are being issued) and b) might represent VW owners in lawsuits. The lawyers say the credit rules are confusing, so when VW promises, “Taking the gift card and dealership credits [$ 500 each] doesn’t affect the owner’s right to sue,” maybe it might. Or so they say.

Back in September, we predicted that VW would need to sweeten the pot to keep owners loyal with “make-good cash in the thousands, not hundreds, and a goodwill coupon for your next Volkswagen.” The $ 500-plus-$ 500 awards are a start. We doubt VW intends the wording on the gift cards to steal their legal rights. More likely, VW is as confused by the fine print on credit cards as we are.

VW is also offering incentives to dealers. One is an offer to buy back used (and currently unsalable) VW diesels at the price they were worth before the emissions scandal broke. (Sorry, dealers only, not owners.) The $ 500 dealership-only credit also drives business to dealers.

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