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Q&A: Why finding a fix for VW’s cheating diesels is taking so long

Volkswagen
Volkswagens are lined up on a dealer’s lot in Boulder, Colo., on Sept. 24, 2015.
(Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

It’s been seven months since the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal broke, and the affected cars still aren’t fixed, although the automaker appears ready to buy back at least some of them.

The German manufacturer is still negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board about what exactly should be done to repair the cars.

But Volkswagen has reached an agreement with the U.S. government to spend more than $1 billion to compensate owners of the diesel-powered cars, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, citing a person who had been briefed on the matter. Details are still being hammered out, and the automaker is still trying to figure out the repair issue.

A federal judge presiding over hundreds of class-action lawsuits against Volkswagen last month had asked the parties to present him with a plan by Thursday.

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Volkswagen admitted installing so-called cheat devices on diesel-engine models from 2009 through 2015 so that the cars would emit fewer pollutants during emissions tests than during normal road use.

Fixing the cars probably would reduce the vehicles’ fuel economy and power. About 600,000 cars nationwide, including 70,000 in California, are involved. Worldwide, the scandal involves 11 million vehicles.

Why has it taken this long to devise a fix? The Times asked Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for news at Kelley Blue Book, to explain. Here’s an edited excerpt:

Isn’t this fix a matter of just turning some screws or recoding the software in the cars?

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No. A lot of people think all you have to do is rewrite the software and make the car run the way it runs while it’s cheating on the test all the time. It’s not that simple.

Are there other parts involved in the emissions-control system?

It’s a very complicated, interdependent system and if you mess with one part of it there might be another part of it you need to address as well. If it were that simple as a software fix, this thing would be resolved right now.

The fact that this thing is dragging on means that there actually needs to be more work done to these cars … to make them comply all the time.

What are some of the hardware problems?

Because they were only cheating on the test cycle, the emissions-control equipment isn’t as robust as it would be if it were running in the compliance mode all the time.

In other words, a catalytic converter is basically like a giant fire and it’s there to burn up the NOx [nitrogen oxide] and particulate matter and all the other bad stuff that comes out of a car. Well, if you’re running it only when the vehicle senses that it’s going to be tested, those parts don’t need to be as robust as parts that would have to be doing that stuff all the time.

A lot of these systems use precious metals to cause the catalytic reaction. To replace those is going be very expensive.

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What are some solutions?

One is to retrofit the cars with the urea system; urea is ammonia, and they inject it into the combustion process and it cleans up the NOx, which is a component of smog. They also may have to refit them with new catalytic converters and other trap-type converters that will trap a lot of these gases and allow them to be burned off. There also is the software element.

Why doesn’t VW just buy all the cars back and be done with it?

It would be billions of dollars. You wouldn’t get your full purchase price because you have used the car to a certain point. So then you have to figure how many thousands of miles were driven and how much money you’re going to get and other stuff, so it’s going to be very complicated math.

What does each side want?

For VW, the problem they’re facing right now is: Exactly what is the fix going to entail and how much is it going to cost? They don’t want to spend any more than they have to so they can fix this problem and make it go away.

The Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board want to make sure that the cars comply. The fact that these guys cheated, the regulators are going to take as hard a line as possible on them not only to comply but take punitive measures as well.

If I own one of these cars, do I just have to wait for the fix?

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Yes. Basically the EPA and CARB say you can continue to drive your cars, don’t worry about the emissions test. If you do take it into the emissions test anyway, it will pass.

So you can get the car legally registered?

Yes. But the big problem is how are they going to make owners comply once they come up with a fix? If I was an owner of the vehicle I wouldn’t take my car in to have it get less fuel economy or give me less power. They have to have to find a way to compel people to bring the cars in to have the work done.

Maybe in California and some states where they do have emissions tests they could say, “If you don’t pass the test with the fix you can’t register your car.” But other states don’t have emissions testing, so there’s no guarantee those cars will ever be fixed.

Have affected owners been able to sell their cars since September?

I haven’t heard anything of people not being able to sell them. In California when you’re selling a car the seller is responsible for getting a smog certification and has to give that certificate to the buyer so they can register the car.

Since this scandal broke, there has been a hit on the resale value of a lot of these diesels because people don’t know what’s going to happen with them. You don’t know if they’re going to have to go as far as buying cars back from people, or reprogramming them and putting some new emissions-control systems on them that will affect the performance and fuel economy.

Why is the California Air Resources Board such a big player in all this as opposed to other state regulators?

They’re at the leading edge of emissions-control standards, and there are eight or nine states that match their requirements. They’ve been the strictest on diesel and a lot of other things so they have a very powerful say about what happens.

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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