Update: A federal judge in San Francisco approved a $14.7 billion settlement for nearly 500,000 Volkswagen and Audi owners on October 25 — the largest auto industry settlement in U.S. history. Under the terms of the corporate settlement, approved by U.S District Judge Charles Breyer, select VW car owners will have the option to take a buyout by selling their cars back to the automaker.
Volkswagen is all out of time; nearly eight months after the world learned of the notorious software cheat that allowed its cars to fool emissions tests, the German automaker was scheduled to appear in court yesterday. It will likely be the most expensive industrial scandal the modern world has seen — dwarfing BP’s Deepwater Horizon $53.8 billion payout — inciting litigation not just in the U.S., where Volkswagen is on the hook for $18 billion in fines alone for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act, but across the globe.
But before it became the scandal heard ‘round the industrialized world, it began somewhat quietly at the nondescript D.C. headquarters of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), where as executive director, Drew Kodjak lead a commission to conduct their own field tests of VW’s fleet of diesel cars.
In September, months after the last test had been completed and the ICCT had shared its findings, Kodjak noticed a small fleet of vans from international news networks gathering outside their office in earnest, with the hope of glimpsing the 50-year-old environmental bureaucrat with answers. But Kodjak didn’t start to grasp how large a scandal he was tied up in until later that week when, one night, driving his Prius home from work, the news vans even followed him home, where he lives with his wife and three kids. There he discovered another news crew — this one from Japan — descending upon his quiet suburban driveway.
“Toward the end of that week we had a team of six staff working full time to answer all of the media inquiries,” he remembers. But as the founder and executive director of the unheard of (until then, anyway) organization that had just uncovered the dirtiest secret in the history of the auto industry, it was Drew who reporters from around the globe wanted to hear from. He was the head of the group that thought to take the automakers emission claims to task, by testing their diesel cars out on the open road, under real world conditions.
For years Kodjak has built a career around the underappreciated business of reducing air pollution from cars. After working for governmental organizations like the EPA, in 2001 he established his own authority on auto emissions, helping to launch the ICCT, a non-partisan, science-based NGO not beholden to any one governing body or national standard — making it a nimble and autonomous group that can look beyond each nation’s varied laws (every country has different emissions regulations) and act as a global clean air watchdog for a global car industry.
And as the executive director of the ICCT, it was Kodjak who commissioned the study that will serve as the linchpin for prosecutors around the world in the many cases that will be brought against the automaker.
The title of the study, published in 2014, may sound unremarkable, however “In-Use Emissions Testing of Light-Duty Diesel Vehicles in the United States” (pdf) was anything but that; the explosive report uncovered a software cheat that enabled the emissions controls equipment in 12 million cars sold around the globe to fool regulators’ testing machinery by running cleanly under lab conditions, thus allowing the cars to spew oxide of nitrogen emissions (NOx) wildly on the open road — up to 35 times the legal limit — obtaining more power and better mileage in the unholy bargain.
“The story starts in Europe, where field testing is not required, ” says Kodjak. That’s where ICCT’s Berlin office discovered alarming discrepancies in emissions levels of European diesels, to Kodjak’s surprise. “We found that cities like Paris, London, and Madrid were in significant noncompliance with their ambient air quality standards — that was unexpected.”
This raised a red flag, but surely this sort of malfeasance couldn’t be occurring in the United States, where emissions standards are more robust and strictly enforced. “We have warranty, we have recall, we have penalties, and we use them all fairly regularly,” says Kodjak.
And yet, ICCT needed to be sure. That’s when Kodjak commissioned a group of engineers and scientists from West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines, and Emissions.
The software cheat that enabled the diesels to comply with emissions in those tests was totally ineffective once the cars hit the pavement.
The testing began: ICCT had a fleet of independent engineers drive around California in diesel cars they’d gotten from rental car agencies, and private citizens, stuffing the trunks and back seats with scopes, computers, and the other stuff of mobile laboratories. The results revealed something shocking; Volkswagen’s diesels were dramatically out of compliance with federal NOx standards under actual driving conditions — standards VW had repeatedly certified they met. The software cheat that enabled the diesels to comply with emissions in those tests was totally ineffective once the cars hit the pavement.
Conducting real world emissions tests in the field, Kodjak and ICCT had gone where neither European nor American regulators tread, and where, one imagines, Volkswagen was hoping they wouldn’t go. Initially they faced pushback from car companies, “particularly the Germans, who are really the only ones who are selling light-duty diesels here in the United States.”
But VW was quick to back down when it couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation, let alone a fix. And then it failed the California Air Resources Board’s [CARB] retests, and suddenly, just like that, all new VW diesels were banned.
And so last September 18th was the day the company could stall no longer, and was forced to confess to the disgraceful and embarrassing reality that some eight years earlier it had come up with the software cheat. It was also the day that the incessant news camera crews from every corner of the world began to arrive in earnest at Drew Kodjak’s doorstep.
“He’s a very smart guy,” says Margo Oge, a former director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality and one of Kodjak’s former bosses. “Time and time again we have seen that a group like ICCT has been able to address an issue that the government could not.”
Kodjak doesn’t present as a crusader. He wears a gray suit and a tie, rarely raises his voice, and will not venture an opinion that’s not supported by data. He knows how the system is meant to work, and he works within it. He is not a bomb-thrower. He believes in science and data and cooperation with industry.
And even now, as Volkswagen prepares for what is sure to amount to a record-breaking settlement, there aren’t any celebratory bottles of champagne being popped in the offices of the ICCT. “This was not really a victory for us,” he concedes, “because we don’t take great pleasure in this. We have no schadenfreude.”