Defeat Devices: Analysis of the 2015 Volkswagen Emission Scandal

David Effa and Zhongchao Tan
Case revision date: 
10 pages (Case Study)

Volkswagen Group (VW) is a German car manufacturer headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany [1]. The company has a strong reputation in the automotive industry. However, on September 18, 2015, it was announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that VW had been cheating on American air pollution tests after independent researchers raised questions about emission levels. VW admitted that the company had installed software known as “defeat devices” in the electronic control module of diesel vehicles that were produced between 2008 and 2015. The software analyzed sensor data, including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine's operation and the barometric pressure. Once the software used these inputs to detect whether emission testing was in progress, it went into a type of test mode which activated the emission control modules. This allowed the vehicle’s emission controls to run at full capacity during the testing, but at a much lower fuel efficiency and performance level than the normal driving operating condition. West Virginia University engineers who were involved in the initial investigation have found that some emissions were 10 to 40 times higher than the EPA legal limits.

As an evolving issue, there is wide interest in studying such defeat devices as well as their potential environmental and economic impact.

Learning objectives: 

The case study provides information on the ethical, economic, environmental and health issues involving VW’s emission scandal. The main teaching objective of this case study is to demonstrate the principles of professional engineering practice, ethical conduct and applicable laws. The case also covers topics in emission formation and air pollution control concepts.

Key words: 
engineering ethics; air pollution
CEAB attributes: 
Module 01– Case Study
Module TN– Teaching Note

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