The old switcheroo
THE sneaky device that got Volkswagen into so much trouble has been an open secret in the car business for decades.
VW was even caught and fined — only $US120,000 — in 1974 for using a “defeat device” to get around emissions testing.
The corporate cheating became possible with the same engine-control computers that also led to widespread cheating in motorsport and, ironically, cleared the way for the much cleaner tailpipe emissions from every vehicle on the road today.
Instead of relying on a distributor, carburettor, choke and a single set of tuning parameters, enginemanagement computers took control of everything from warm-up procedures to boost levels in turbocharged engines. So any engine can be set for optimum operation, at any time in any conditions.
Today, that means stop-start tech, cylinder-on-demand programs, high compression ratios with knock controls and much, much more. But a defeat device also clears the way for parallel settings, perfect for cheating on emissions and official fuel economy testing — and even better for a race team looking to boost engines.
In Australia, such devices spread like cane toads during the 1980s heyday of production car racing, with drivers of turbocharged Mitsubishi Starions routinely hiding switches that activated hidden racing programs. In Britain, they also helped fuel a flood of second-hand Japanese imports. Many dodgy operators installed them on “grey” imports, which would have failed tailpipe tests but flew through with a hidden engine map.
Many were triggered by the same bonnet switch that controlled a light in the engine bay at a time when there were regular breakdowns. The bonnet had to be raised for cooling during the emissions runs, so it was quick and easy to get around the rules. VW has done much more with its device.
The scandal has already cost Volkswagen any chance of global sales leadership this year. It’s likely to mean a final bill in the tens of billions of dollars, has ended the careers of some very senior executives and could even mean some do jail time in the US.
In Australia, on the back of the DSG gearbox fiasco, it could set VW back 10 years.