Photo: AP/Gillian Flaccus

James Robert Liang—one of the engineers who helped design the defeat device that fooled U.S. emissions regulators into thinking VW TDIs were cleaner than they really were—is the first VW employee to be sentenced in the U.S. for participating in Dieselgate. And boy is he going to pay dearly.

The sentence, announced today by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox from the Eastern District of Michigan, includes a 40-month prison term, two years of “supervised release,” and a $200,000 fine. The Department of Justice says in a press release that the sentence accounts for Liang’s cooperation in the investigation into Dieselgate, describing the reasoning for the decision by saying:

[Liang received this sentence because of his role in a] 10-year conspiracy to defraud U.S. regulators and Volkswagen customers by implementing software specifically designed to cheat emissions tests in hundreds of thousands of Volkswagen “clean diesel” vehicles sold in the U.S.

The 63 year old engineer—who pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiracy to commit fraud—spilled quite a few beans as part of his guilty plea, saying that when he and some of his coworkers started the design of the EA 189 engine in 2006, they “realized that they could not design a diesel engine that would meet the stricter U.S. emissions standards.”


To fix this, the team designed a software that detected when a car was being tested on a dynamometer by U.S. emissions regulators, so that the software could dial down tailpipe emissions accordingly. But when the car wasn’t being tested (i.e. during normal driving that the typical consumer might experience), the exhaust spewed far more NOx emissions to keep up fuel economy and emissions component longevity.

The D.O.J. says that “VW tasked Liang with making the defeat device work by calibrating it to recognize specific U.S. emissions tests’ drive cycles.”

In 2008, Liang moved from Wolfsburg, Germany to VW’s emissions test center in Oxnard, California, where he became the Lead of Diesel Competence, and was tasked with launching “clean diesel” VWs in the U.S..


For eight years—2009 to 2016—Liang admits that he and other VW employees met with the EPA and California Air Resources Board to receive their emissions certifications for various diesel vehicles. In some of those meetings, Liang’s “co-conspirators” lied to regulators by telling them the cars complied with emissions standards and with the Clean Air Act, thus “falsely and fraudulently” certifying the cars.

Liang also admitted in his guilty plea that he knew the whole “Clean Diesel” marketing strategy that VW was using to sell cars was a big lie, and so were the high fuel economy numbers that relied on the cheating defeat device.

He even admitted that he helped VW employees “refine” the defeat device over the years, and that he helped them lie to regulators who raised questions about real-world emissions—this was after the International Council on Clean Transportation discovered NOx emissions in excess of 30 times the allowable amount.

For all of this, Liang is sentenced to federal prison for over three years. It’s a seemingly harsh sentence for an engineer whose job it is to find solutions to difficult technical problems, but perhaps not as harsh as the consequences of his actions.