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Washington — Volkswagen’s monumental crisis over emissions-test cheating — which forced the resignation of its longtime CEO on Wednesday and threatens to cost the German automaker at least $7.3 billion — began with a routine test led by researchers in West Virginia two years ago.

Without that chance finding, VW might never have been caught using a bit of hidden software that allows pollution-control systems on 2.0-liter diesel cars to work normally when being tested for harmful emissions coming out of the tailpipe — but shuts those systems off during regular driving. That allowed 11 million cars worldwide to produce up to 40 times the allowable smog-forming pollution allowed in the United States.

“We’re a tiny, non-governmental organization,” Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council for Clean Transportation, said in an interview Wednesday. “It was really happenstance that this was ultimately uncovered.”

In 2013, his organization commissioned a study of VW diesels by West Virginia University after questions were raised about European diesel emissions standards and whether European vehicles were emitting too much nitrogen oxides linked to smog. Testers looked at three diesel cars for the U.S. market: a 2012 VW Jetta, a 2013 VW Passat and a BMW X5.

The group expected the cars they tested would perform better than those in Europe, because U.S. regulations are tougher. They were surprised the two Volkswagens had significantly higher-than-expected emissions, while the BMW performed well. They were so certain they had done something wrong that they tested the cars two more times with similar results.

The researchers made their findings public in May 2014 in a report that got little attention. But it caught the notice of the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board, which opened investigations.

The Detroit News has learned that, in response to tests by the EPA and CARB, the automaker actually issued two separate recalls labeled as service campaigns for certain cars: one in December 2014, another in March. Software patches were VW’s remedy, and the automaker assured the EPA and CARB that they fixed the problem. Out of 390,000 cars identified by VW at the time, about 196,000 were reflashed with new software.

CARB began testing VW’s remedy in May. The California agency had developed a special dynamometer that showed the emission controls in the Volkswagens were not working properly. The software patch, in fact, did not cut exhaust emissions.

At the time, government officials never suspected VW was intentionally cheating. They kept looking for other potential problems. All summer long, VW kept offering “explanation after explanation,” a person involved in the talks said Wednesday. “They did not add up.”

Even through early August, government officials believed the automaker was acting in good faith. They thought other issues like a bad “dosing sensor” or a test problem could have accounted for the results.

In early August, EPA and CARB officials met with VW at an annual automotive conference in Traverse City to talk about the problem. By that time, California and EPA were withholding certification allowing 2016 diesel models to be sold until they were sure the recall fix would address the problem. VW said it had everything fixed.

Finally, at a conference in California on Aug. 20, an official from VW could not answer technical questions and admitted it had been intentionally cheating through so-called “defeat devices.”

After months of work and testing, government officials were shocked at VW’s admission of fraud.

The deception was sophisticated: Electronic control modules told the emissions controls to only work during emissions testing — something the computer could determine by the steering wheel position and other factors. That turned out to be a big clue for government investigators.

In a typical car, a dashboard indicator is supposed to light up if it’s emitting more than allowable emissions. The Detroit News has learned the VW diesels were programmed not to activate those onboard diagnostics required of all cars since 1996 under the Clean Air Act.

On Friday, the EPA and CARB announced Volkswagen had admitted to installing defeat devices on 482,000 2009-15 Volkswagen Jetta, Passat, Sportwagen, Beetle and Audi A3 cars with 2.0-liter engines sold in the U.S. That included the 390,000 cars initially identified by the automaker, plus another 92,000. The cheat caused the cars to emit 10-40 times the allowable pollution.

By Tuesday, the automaker disclosed that 11 million diesel cars worldwide may have evaded clean-air rules. It could face U.S. fines of up to $18 billion — $37,500 per vehicle — as well as criminal prosecution.

People are shocked at the fraud, Kodjak said, “because of the deliberate nature, and the fact that this came from one of the greenest countries that’s known for being extremely law-abiding.”

Analysts speculated there are only three advantages to such a device: VW may have wanted to get higher fuel economy for the cars, better performance or avoid more expensive emissions controls like those on larger diesel VWs.

Industry, government and researchers say the automaker could have avoided criminal investigations and massive worldwide lawsuits linked to the admission that they cheated on emissions tests if their software fix had actually worked.

“Why didn’t it work? That is literally one of my biggest questions is why didn’t it work,” Kodjak said. If it had, investigators may never have learned about VW’s intentional fraud. “California told you they were going to check. If they had just fixed it then ... the only answer I can surmise is it is not easy.”

Government officials expect VW will have to come up with three separate fixes since there are three generations of diesel engines that use different systems to prevent the release of smog-causing nitrogen oxides. It is not yet known whether a new software patch will suffice, or if new pollution-control equipment must be installed.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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