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Audi's 'dirty tricks' exposed in emissions scandal
AFTER more than US$30 billion in fines, numerous indicted executives and a guilty plea in the United States, you wouldn't think there was much more to learn about the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
Wrong. Nearly four years after Volkswagen confessed to systematically evading pollution rules for a decade, facets of the scandal are still coming to light. Newly uncovered documents viewed by The New York Times show that Volkswagen's Audi luxury-car unit was more deeply involved in developing the emissions cheating scheme than previously known, and continued to sell vehicles with illegal software even after the scandal became public.
The documents, first reported earlier this month by German broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk and the Handelsblatt newspaper, show that Audi managers and engineers in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt were just as willing as their counterparts at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg to cheat in pursuit of the company's goal of becoming the largest carmaker in the world - perhaps even more so.
"We won't make it without a few dirty tricks," an employee in Audi's diesel motor development department wrote in an e-mail to colleagues in January 2008, summarising road tests that confirmed diesel models couldn't meet emissions standards.
Audi managers and engineers bluntly discussed what was in effect a criminal conspiracy, using terms like "defeat device" or "cycle beating" that clearly connote illegal attempts to defeat the testing procedures used by regulators.
The Audi documents are the latest in a steady drip of revelations that have complicated Volkswagen's attempts to move beyond the scandal and reposition itself as the carmaker that will make emission-free electric cars affordable for the masses.
On Thursday, the company was one of four carmakers that agreed with California on a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions - in defiance of Trump administration efforts to roll back such standards. But almost four years after the Environmental Protection Agency formally accused Volkswagen of wrongdoing, the company has refused to disclose the results of its internal investigation of the scandal. Instead, information emerges piecemeal, generating fresh headlines each time.
Audi said it was constrained from commenting because of pending criminal investigations. It may appear "as if we don't want to communicate", the company said in a statement, adding that in some cases it has been specifically forbidden by US authorities from discussing evidence. "The communication of many issues was and is not in our hands," the Audi statement said.
In Germany, Audi is not forbidden from discussing evidence, said Andrea Mayer, a spokeswoman for prosecutors in Munich. "Whether it's clever or not is their decision," she said. "We don't prohibit it." By withholding information, Volkswagen and Audi arguably prolong their agony.
"It's been established pretty clearly, if anecdotally, that companies that come clean quickly and fulsomely are better off in the long run," said Alexandra Wrage, president of Trace, a consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland, that helps companies avoid getting entangled in corruption. "But many still opt for opacity."
Most of the recent set of documents were prepared in 2007 and 2008. Audi and Volkswagen were on the verge of a major attempt to regain past glory in the US by selling Americans on the virtues of "clean diesel". If it succeeded, it would help Volkswagen surpass Toyota as the world's biggest carmaker.
But development of new diesel technology was behind schedule, endangering the whole project. The new models at the heart of the campaign couldn't meet US emissions standards, which were stricter than Europe's.
"Deadline situation critical," warned an internal Audi presentation in 2007.
Trapped between Volkswagen's aspirations and the laws of physics, Audi engineers devised an ingenious but illegal workaround. They installed software in the engine computer that could recognise the telltale signs of an official emissions test. If regulators were looking, the software would temporarily ramp up pollution controls to be compliant. In everyday use, the cars produced emissions far above legal limits.
Vehicles like the Audi Q7 SUV were equipped with a kind of catalytic converter that used injections of a chemical solution to neutralise emissions of nitrogen oxides - harmful gases that have been linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart problems and cancer.
The chemical solution, sold commercially as AdBlue, required a separate storage tank. Audi was worried that US car owners, not used to diesel technology, would not accept the inconvenience of having to occasionally refill the tank. So Audi tried to design the cars such that they'd only need refills when owners visited dealers for regular servicing every 16,000 km.
"Under no circumstances" should customers be forced to refill the tank in the intervals between service, an Audi e-mail in April 2008 warned. "That would be a disaster for the entire Clean Diesel strategy in North America!" the author wrote in bold type.
The dilemma for Audi engineers was that the tanks planned for the cars 16,000 km. The obvious solutions - a bigger tank or a second tank - were rejected. A bigger tank would have robbed valuable interior space. A senior manager vetoed installation of a second tank for cost reasons, according to a 2007 PowerPoint presentation.
Another presentation from 2008 offered a way around the problem. The car would have two operating modes, according to the document. One would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by at least 90 per cent, while consuming a lot of AdBlue. But that mode would only be used in conditions that corresponded to an official test. The second mode, used most of the time, would ration consumption of AdBlue and produce higher emissions.
The presentation noted that the approach was a form of cycle beating, the automotive equivalent of cheating on an exam. "Highly critical in the USA!" the document warned.
As Volkswagen later admitted in a plea agreement with the Justice Department, Audi deployed illegal software anyway. NYTIMES