Good News for Gearheads

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    VW is keen to mend fences with drivers after forcing 2.6 million diesel cars in Germany to undergo refits following its emissions-cheating scandal.

  • Facts


    • The refits carried out by VW to make the diesels comply with emissions standards also wiped out any tuning software owners added to increase performance.
    • Handelsblatt has learned that VW will cover all the costs arising from the retuning of cars that have undergone its refit, including admin expenses for getting the cars recertified.
    • The tuning industry is big: About 5 percent of vehicles on German roads have had their software altered to make them faster, potentially 130,000 of the 2.6 million VWs affected by Dieselgate.
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Performance can come at a price. Source: AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz

The performance tuning industry is a niche segment that can turn your diesel four-door into a veritable sports car by tweaking its software to make the engine more powerful.

Dieselgate, the VW emissions-rigging scandal that affected around 11 million cars worldwide, created a double dilemma for the owners of souped-up cars.

The software reboot Volkswagen owners had to undertake to correct nitrogen-oxide emissions also wiped out the special software that gave their engines extra power. If they want to reinstall the performance software, will they need to be checked again to ensure they are sticking to the emissions targets?

Until recently, even the tuning industry association didn’t have the answer. But Handelsblatt has learned that a solution has been found, and it’s both bad and good news for drivers.

The bad news is that industry experts say many drivers will have to make a trip to their vehicle licensing office to get their cars rechecked once they have installed performance-boosting software.

The good news is that, as VW spokesman Nicolai Laude told Handelsblatt, Volkswagen will cover all the costs. “That includes the possible cost for a new TÜV certification,” he said. TÜV is the German technical inspection association that checks whether cars are roadworthy and comply with emissions regulations.

At first glance, you might dismiss this as a peripheral problem. But in fact it’s so important that industry experts recently met in the German transport ministry to discuss it.

That’s because performance tuning is no longer just the preserve of gearheads. Now that cars can be souped up electronically, ordinary drivers have gotten a taste for it. The owners of company cars are particularly partial to it, said industry insiders.

Harald Schmidtke, managing director of the VDAT association of automobile tuners, said about 5 percent of all vehicles in Germany are tuned. If you apply that percentage to the 2.6 million VW cars undergoing refits in Germany, it means some 130,000 cars could run into certification problems.

The figure could be a lot higher because Opel and Mercedes owner Daimler have also recalled many of their diesel automobiles as a “voluntary service action” in response to VW’s diesel scandal.

“You’ve got to imagine it’s like an audio tape that is wiped and then spoken onto again.”

Hans-Ulrich Sander, motor transport expert, TÜV Rheinland

Tuning is legal if the engine is subsequently checked and approved by a certification authority. Many tuning companies get that blessing in advance by having their software or tuning boxes approved before installation. In such cases the certification office issues an amended roadworthiness certificate for the tuned vehicle.

This is where the diesel scandal has caused problems. When engineers removed the infamous software that was designed to cheat emissions tests, they simultaneously got rid of any tuning system, which then had to be reinstalled.

“You’ve got to imagine it’s like an audio tape that is wiped and then spoken onto again,” said Hans-Ulrich Sander of TÜV Rheinland, a technical inspection company. That’s only legal if the original tuning software is reinstalled. But that’s not happening, because the new tuning software being installed is adjusted to the VW refit. That’s why the drivers always have to have their vehicles re-certified.

Until now it was unclear who would foot the bill for this rigmarole. Neither VDAT nor TÜV were able to answer that question, and the Federal Motor Transport Authority said the matter didn’t fall under its purview.

VW, however, appears to be feeling generous. Spokesman Mr. Laude said the owners of tuned vehicles should contact their franchise dealership where a legal tuning would be restored free of charge. The automaker will cover all costs including the recertification, Mr. Laude said.

It’s a satisfactory solution for owners, tuners and dealers, and it preempts a problem for VW. If drivers neglected to get their retuned vehicles certified, they would have been driving around without insurance coverage, and no auto company would want to be associated with that ticking time bomb.

Jan Keuchel is a Handelsblatt correspondent covering investigations and the German legal system. Contact the author: keuchel@handelsblatt.com 

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