Mythbusters, though we may all be fans of it, was not exactly hard-hitting journalism. And sometimes the hosts were paid to shill for companies. And with hindsight, it’s easy to see how that could go wrong. Like the time they helped Volkswagen claim that its illegal, cheaty diesels were cleaner than other cars on the road.
Back in 2009, hosts Grant Imahara, Kari Byron, and Tory Belleci put a Volkswagen Jetta TDI through a number of “tests” that set out to bust myths about diesels being dirtier than other cars in an online segment called “Diesel Diaries.” The videos even included a segment in which the car was put on an emissions testing rig.
It’s extremely unlikely the Mythbusters team knew about Volkswagen’s diesel cheating, nor would they have even realized an issue if they really did put a cheating diesel car on an emissions testing rig. In all likelihood, Volkswagen’s cars were able to recognize when they were being tested, and adjusted accordingly.
But in the video above, the second in the Diesel Diaries series, they set out to prove the cars were “clean” by covering an exhaust pipe with a white cloth only for it to emerge soot-free. They then take the car to get its carbon dioxide emissions “inspected” only for it pass with flying colors.
It was the sort of thing that should have been ideal for a brand like Volkswagen. Not only is the company’s version of the “right” message sent to viewers, but it was given the air of credibility and scientific métier that only Mythbusters—almost always a great and credible show—could deliver.
But what neither of those tests could actually show that VW’s diesel engines were putting out NOx gases at rates up to 40 times legal levels. NOx emissions are separate from a carbon dioxide test, and wouldn’t show up using either one of these party tricks.
It’s not like the Mythbusters staff were completely ignorant of the dangers of NOx gases, either. In a test concerning motorcycle emissions, main hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman made sure to test for both carbon dioxides and oxides of nitrogen:
It’s a little unclear what the setup and sponsorship agreement was for Diesel Diaries, and we’ve reached out to Discovery for comment. In the first episode, the hosts remarked how the diesel engine didn’t have a strange smell at all – though even with elevated NOx emissions, it wouldn’t:
But something clearly went wrong. Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission sued Volkswagen for billions of dollars in damages, over what it says were false advertising practices.
If nothing else it shows how far Volkswagen went to portray the cars as clean when they were anything but.