AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The German government today ordered a mandatory recall of all Volkswagens in the country with software allowing cheating on emissions. That's nearly 3 million cars. Volkswagen said it will recall 8-and-a-half million vehicles all over Europe. Add to that nearly half-a-million here in the U.S. NPR's John Ydstie is just back from Germany and joins me now. Welcome back, John.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So this is a mandatory recall. What's the significance of Germany's decision?
YDSTIE: Well, it means German owners of the cars that have this software will be required to bring their cars in for a fix. It will not be optional. Volkswagen had previously said it would institute a voluntary recall. That would've meant that drivers could have chosen not to have their cars fixed, which could've resulted in added pollution from those cars in the years to come, so a mandatory recall would seem to ensure the pollution from those cars will be reduced.
CORNISH: So how much do we know about what Volkswagen's going to do to actually bring these cars into compliance?
YDSTIE: Right now, all we have is broad statements from VW that some of the cars will need only a software fix which could be done pretty quickly. But others are going to require some additional hardware too. The hardware will mostly go into older cars, and the main component will be an additional catalytic converter that injects a chemical into the diesel exhaust. The chemical, which VW calls AdBlue, neutralizes the nitrogen oxide or NOx pollution emitted from the engines.
Now, according to VW, these hardware fixes could require up to five to 10 hours in the shop, so they'll be expensive. And in the U.S., most of the cars are going to need this hardware fix. Now, this is interesting. Many of the newer models of these cars already have the hardware, but it wasn't being used aggressively enough to bring the cars into compliance.
CORNISH: But why not? I mean, if they have the hardware, why not just use it, make the cars less polluting?
YDSTIE: The reason is that to make this system work optimally, the cars would've had to go in for service more often in order to fill the tank with this AdBlue. VW worried that if customers knew upfront they'd have to bring their diesel vehicles in for servicing more often, they'd be put off and buy a hybrid or a gas-powered car.
CORNISH: So let's take a step back here. Given all this, why did Volkswagen, you know, bet the farm on diesel engines?
YDSTIE: Well, actually, there are a number of reasons. First, they are more efficient than gasoline engines. You can get more miles per gallon of fuel, and in Europe, at least, the fuel costs less. They're also more durable than gasoline engines. They last longer, and they produce much less carbon dioxide pollution.
Volkswagen was also skeptical of hybrid technology. They thought they could match the mileage and emissions of the hybrids with their diesel. But yesterday, VW suggested that going forward, it will put more focus on hybrids and electric.
CORNISH: OK, so what about the future of the diesel engine itself? Will that be damaged by this scandal?
YDSTIE: Well, certainly in the U.S., where diesel engines in passenger cars are still pretty rare, I think it will hurt significantly. And in Europe, around half the passenger cars are powered by diesels. And most of the auto experts I talked to in Germany thought the use of diesels in passenger cars there has likely peaked as a result of the scandal. And today, Germany's environment minister said the government should think about ending the current tax breaks for diesel cars. That would clearly cloud the diesel's future.
CORNISH: John, thanks so much.
YDSTIE: You're welcome, Audie.
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