California Admits It Might Be Impossible to Fix Every Cheating VW Diesel

There might be no technical solution to make the engines compliant and run properly.

VW Diesel
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Diesel-gate is a scandal buffet – there’s too much for one person to consume, there’s always something new being rolled out, and you only stop eating because you’re full, or disgusted. The newest dish is an admission from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that it just might not be possible to fix all of the cheating Volkswagen diesels on the road—the way the defeat device software is integrated, it might be technically impossible for the engines to be both environmentally compliant and able to perform within their onboard diagnostic requirements.

Volkswagen twice tried to bring the offending engines into compliance with a software update before the matter become public, once in December 2014 and again in April 2015. Both attempts failed. This year, the US Environmental Protection Agency and CARB shot down VW’s proposed fix for its 2.0-liter engines for being too vague. Installing an AdBlue system to scrub out the nitrogen oxide emissions isn’t a guarantee either, because CARB tested that approach with some 2015 model year 3.0-liter engines and they, too, failed.

That leaves about 82,000 out-of-compliance cars running around in California (out of the 580,000 total, nationwide) with no fix in sight. CARB chief Todd Sax said the state is considering other options for remediation, including “something less than a full fix” along with fines for each of the offending vehicles. That would save VW from having to buy back thousands of cars, and it would permit owners who don’t mind the eco renegade issue to keep their cars in their current states of tune and continue to register them. It would not, however, satisfy buyers who paid the diesel premium—at the dealership and the pump—trying to do their part for clean motoring.

It might be time to pay more attention to the letter that 44 clean energy CEOs, NGO heads, hedge fund managers, and Elon Musk sent to CARB back in December 2015. They said, essentially, that it’s a waste of time to address cars that can’t all be fixed, so it would be better to “direct VW to accelerate greatly its rollout of zero-emission vehicles, which by their very nature, have zero emissions and thus present zero opportunities for cheating, and also do not require any enforcement dollars to verify.”

There were reports in February that the EPA asked VW to do just that, and build EVs at its Chattanooga, Tennessee factory, but that’s all died down in the new furor. Eventually, something will have to give. Until then, we’ll get our bibs ready for the next serving of turpitude.