Dieselgate became public in September 2015 when the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed how VW and Audi had violated the Clean Air Act, leading to investigations by government agencies around the world in the biggest scandal to hit the car industry in decades.
VW admitted in 2015 to having manipulated the systems in 11m vehicles worldwide to fool emissions tests. It pleaded guilty in the US two years ago to criminal charges and paid out $4.3bn (£3.3bn) in civil and criminal penalties. In Australia it settled a multimillion-dollar class action which involved an agreement to pay between $87m and $127m in compensation to customers.
In the face of the allegations, the VW CEO, Martin Winterkorn, apologised on behalf of the company, saying: “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.”
In January former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and four others were charged in Germany with fraud in connection with the emissions scandal.
In Europe VW is still denying the software in question was an illegal defeat device – despite German regulators having ruled in 2015 that the software was designed to cheat emissions tests. In 2015 the company admitted fitting the software to 1.2m of its vehicles in the UK, and rolled out a “fix” to make cars compliant with emissions laws. But VW’s case in papers submitted to the court is that this software was not designed to breach the legal testing regime and was therefore not a defeat device.
Tom de la Mare QC, representing VW’s customers, said, the vehicles were “optimised to minimise the amount of pollutants” in emissions tests, meaning they operated in a “completely different way in the street to how it operated in the test.
It is difficult to think of a more obvious cheat than the one VW used.” Emissions tests are designed to protect the public from diesel emissions. “Nitrogen oxides are extremely dangerous air quality pollutants, particularly in urban areas,” said De la Mare, adding exposure to nitrogen dioxide carried with it significant risk to human health and citing statistics showing pollution was “killing approximately 1,000 people a day in Europe”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates exposure to nitrogen dioxide has an effect on mortality equivalent to 23,500 deaths annually in the UK.