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computer and accesses the OBD’s software that controls the exhaust system with a password.
Thousands of lines of commands and numbers appear on the monitor.“Customers often want us to turn off the particulate filter,” says the tuner. There are several reasons for this. The filter eats away performance, costs additional fuel and only lasts a couple of years with heavy driving. “So we deactivate the soot filter with the electronic control.” The technician writes a couple of commands and — presto — the particulate filter is inoperable.
With this control system, a car will now accelerate faster. But it also emits significantly more carcinogenic soot. However, it could end badly for the driver at the car’s mandatory technical inspection. There would be an entry in the OBD’s memory about the no-longerfunctioning filter. But that, too, can be resolved with a few clicks. “I will now make sure that no error message about the filter is stored in the OBD’s memory,” says the technician.
A few more commands, and the manipulation is complete. The technical inspectors won’t notice a thing.
What the car mechanic does on a small scale, the diesel manipulators at Volkswagen were practicing in giant dimensions. Parts of the exhaust controls of the manipulated cars only functioned properly during emissions tests. But out on the road, exhaust controls are partially deactivated — good for the car’s performance but bad for the emission of nitrogen oxide.
And what about the OBD system that is supposed to register such tampering? The loophole is that the OBD only contains a digital trace if the emissions control is unavailable or 100 percent dysfunctional. If it is only partially deactivated, the OBD displays nothing. It is precisely this trick that the manipulators at Volkswagen used.
The fact that Volkswagen apparently outsmarted the government inspectors is one scandal. The other - and bigger - scandal is political. Merkel’s coalition government of the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left SPD decided in 2008 that instead of actual exhaust measurements, only the OBD, which is susceptible to manipulation, was to be read from that date on. Car drivers no longer had to fear exposure of their excessive emissions during the millions of inspections carried out each year.
Tiefensee, now economics minister in the state of Thuringia, said that he could not reconstruct the decision making process from memory. We would have to look at the files in Berlin.
In June, 2013, Czech President Milos Zeman was visiting Merkel in Berlin. A decision on the Europe-wide CO2 limits for cars — to be enforced beginning in 2020 - was on the agenda for the following day in Brussels. Merkel had serious concerns that the decision would not be made in the interests of German carmakers.
Leaders of the European Union’s 28 member states were to give the nod to the draft
the next day. For companies whose car models tend to be small – such as Fiat, Peugeot, Renault or Toyota – the limits don’t tend to be a problem. But they are for German automakers like BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen, which produce a much higher share of bigger cars.
In the evening hours, Merkel reached for the phone. The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, answered. The two had known each other for a long time. Merkel had supported Kenny, a member of the centrist Fine Gael party, in the 2007 Irish elections. For Kenny, leader of a country that was dependent on international aid during Europe’s debt crisis, Merkel was “a good friend.”
Now Merkel had something to ask of him — and the prime minister was glad to oblige. As officiating president of the EU Council, he took the already-negotiated CO2 decision off the following day’s agenda without further ado.
Thanks to Merkel’s intervention, the car industry was given another year to work on meeting the limits. The chancellor’s action perplexed many. An SPD member of the European Parliament, Matthias Groote, who at the time was chairman of the environment committee in the European Parliament, still talks today of “the chancellor’s brutal intervention.”
Besides pressing Kenny to gain an advantage for the German car industry, Merkel also offered concessions to British prime minister David Cameron on banking regulations if he, in turn, would represent the German position on cars and ignore his own environmental advisors.
Volkswagen’s cozy relationship with government has an especially long history. The state of Lower Saxony, where VW’s headquarters and biggest factory are based, owns 20 percent of Volkswagen stock. Lower Saxony politicians like state governor Stephan Weil and economics minister Olaf Lies, both from the SPD, sit on Volkswagen’s supervisory board. National-level politicians with close ties to Lower Saxony include
Volkswagen’s cozy relationship to government has an especially long history.
Merkel’s vice chancellor and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel, as well as foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both SPD.
If the line to the government should threaten to break, the people at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg would know what to do. During Merkel’s second term, Volkswagen hired a former government spokesperson, Thomas Steg, as its chief lobbyist.
One is reminded of the banks, who, once they reach a certain size, can expect to be saved by taxpayers because their collapse might risk even greater costs. “Too big to fail suddenly appears to apply to the automobile industry as well,” says Martin Häusling, a member of the EU Parliament for the German Greens.
Häusling says he is seeing German government officials talk down the Volkswagen scandal while— behind the scenes — trying to rally German EU parliamentarians behind the company.“They are saying in Berlin that what happened is of course embarrassing, but it is a matter of jobs. That the Germans have to stick together in this.” While Berlin holds no direct sway over EU parliamentarians like Häusling, officials in the German capital are sending a clear message to German representatives in Brussels. Those who oppose Volkswagen will fall from grace. In other words: Not supporting German carmakers could be dangerous to your political career.
Volkswagen is cutting costs as it girds for fines and recalls after its emissions-cheating scandal.
Big industry: German chancellors rarely miss an auto show or chance to promote carmakers abroad.
VW sales plunged in the U.S. following the carmaker’s admission of rigged emissions tests. This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. Martin Seiwert, Rebecca Eister, Jürgen Rees, Franz Rother, Gregor Peter Schmitz, Silke Wettach and Florian Zerfass contributed.
Ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder (right) had close ties to Volkswagen‘s then-CEO Ferdinand Piëch (shown here with his wife).