Volkswagen Dieselgate and the Culture of Quality

In early 2014, the International Council on Clean Transportation began working with researchers at West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines, and Emissions (CAFEE) to follow up on reported discrepancies in the emissions of Volkswagen diesel vehicles. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) had previously subjected the vehicles to rigorous emissions testing in the laboratory, and the vehicles had all passed with no indication of any problems. The CAFEE researchers did their emissions test in the field and produced some very different results.[i]

Graphic of volkswagons polluting a city and nature

The researchers discovered that when operating in the real world, the vehicles produced emissions that fell far outside the limits allowed for diesel vehicles to be certified in the United States. After more testing, the researchers discovered a sophisticated software application that used environmental data from the vehicle, such as the absence of movement from the steering wheel, to determine when the vehicle was being tested in a laboratory and when it was operating in the real world. If the software determined the vehicle was undergoing testing, it would turn on the emission control to pass the test. If the software determined the vehicle was operating in the field, it would turn off the emission control, which would increase emissions beyond acceptable levels but would also greatly improve fuel economy and vehicle performance.

After initial attempts at denial, Volkswagen eventually admitted to having knowingly created and installed this software application as a way of intentionally deceiving the testing mechanisms of regulators around the world between 2009 and 2015, affecting about 11 million vehicles.[ii]

As a consequence of this deception, Volkswagen announced plans to spend $18.32 billion on fixing the issue.[iii] In January 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay a fine of $2.8 billion. Additional criminal charges are pending against seven former employees, several of whom are executives and two of whom were directly responsible for Quality.

“Dieselgate”, as the scandal came to be known, is an example not of the failure of a dysfunctional system but of willful manipulation of that system and a violation of the principles of a Culture of Quality. By all accounts, Volkswagen had a sterling reputation for Quality throughout the organization, and yet it has been reported that several people at the management level had been aware of the deception for several years.[iv] Dieselgate is far from over and will continue to provide a warning about the vulnerability of the Culture of Quality and responsibility to contrary priorities of profit and personal gain.

Learn more about the consequences of Quality failures and how you can respond to them to ensure they don’t recur in our Insight Report, What Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong: Quality Case Studies.

[i] Andrew Wendler, “How Volkswagen Got Busted for Skirting EPA Diesel Emissions Standards,” Car and Driver, September 21, 2015, accessed March 8, 2018,

[ii] Jack Ewing, “Volkswagen Says 11 Million Cars Worldwide Are Affected in Diesel Deception,” The New York Times, accessed March 8, 2018,

[iii] William Boston, “Bad News? What Bad News? Volkswagen Bullish Despite Emissions Costs,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2016, accessed March 8, 2018,

[iv] Theo Leggett, “VW papers shed light on emissions scandal,” BBC, January 12, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018,

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