Oliver Schmidt & VW Dieselgate

By Gary S. Vasilash

Diesels have had a popularity in Europe that has never been the case for the U.S. Outside of pickup trucks purchased by contractors rather than by those who simply want a pickup truck because (a) it is a truck or (b) there is that need to buy mulch every now and then, the diesel has had the approximate popularity of manual transmissions in the U.S.

Volkswagen executives in the mid-00s thought that they might be able to gain some market share in the U.S. market were they to develop a “clean diesel”—one that didn’t have the smelly exhaust associated with diesels (it is somewhat inexplicable how Europeans didn’t seem to mind) yet would provide the oft-touted low-end torque seemingly beloved by everyone, as well the kind of fuel efficiency that the compression ignition engine would provide.

So the EA189 engine was developed. But it turns out there was a non-trivial problem with it: It wouldn’t meet the U.S. emissions requirements. VW obviously couldn’t sell a whole lot of Jetta TDIs in the U.S. with that problem.

So the engineers in Wolfsburg came up with what can innocently be described as a “work-around,” or what is now a term of art, “defeat device.”

But it wasn’t a device as in something physical that was stuck in the tailpipe.

Rather, it was software. The software was developed so that it was able to determine whether the vehicle in question was being tested or not. If it was being tested, then it adjusted things so that there wouldn’t be excessive emissions.

Otherwise. . . .

Apparently the engineers who came up with this figured it would be a short-term “fix.”

But as those things happen, short turned into long.

So VW was merrily selling diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. About 500,000 of them.

In 2014 the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) contracted with researchers at the University of West Virginia. The task was to check the emissions of the VW diesels.

So the researchers drove around in instrumented vehicles. . .and discovered the emissions were on the order of 35 times greater than was permitted.

In September 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency served a “Notice of Violation” to VW telling the vehicle manufacturer that its diesel-powered vehicles were equipped with a defeat-device.

And so “Dieselgate” began.

The questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” became the order of the day, with questions at all levels, including to the very top, to Dr. Martin Winterkorn, then CEO of the company.

And there were evident coverups galore, changes at the top, and fines that would make anyone gulp.

Oliver Schmidt had been assigned by VW Wolfsburg to move to the U.S. and take charge of the U.S. operation’s emissions office in 2012. This was before the shit hit the fan. But he was there when it did hit. And there were meetings that he’d participated in with various government officials, from the federal EPA as well as the California Resources Board (CARB).

He was transferred back to Germany and in January 2017, when he and his wife were going to be returning to Germany after their annual vacation in Florida, we was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

In December 2017 a federal judge sentenced Schmidt to seven years.

He managed to get transferred to German prison in September 2020. He was granted parole in January 2021.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” we talk to Schmidt about Dieselgate and his time in prison.

Realize that this is a guy who is as far from being a criminal as you can imagine. A regular engineer in his early 40s.

And due to all manner of what can be described as “political machinations” within Volkswagen AG, he, not the people who were running the place, ended up behind bars.

Schmidt talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Brett Smith director of Technology at the Center for Automotive Research, and me in a conversation that is unlike any you’re likely to watch.

And you can see it here.

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