That Time Mythbusters Inadvertently Helped Volkswagen Lie To The World

Illustration for article titled That Time Mythbusters Inadvertently Helped Volkswagen Lie To The World

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.

Deputy Editor, Jalopnik. 2002 Lexus IS300 Sportcross.



I think perspective is always something to keep in mind as well though. Yes, that doesn’t mean that Volkswagen wasn’t wrong for cheating, but 40 times legal levels is still a tiny number and how often were they really putting that amount of emissions out? Was that just the max number that was seen in testing for 1% of the time or the average over a full test?

If you look at the emissions standards of diesels over the past several years (I only know because I work with industrial trucks and have gotten to see first hand the ridiculous reductions), they are absolutely tiny compared to where they were just a decade ago. The air coming out of a modern diesel is frequently cleaner than the air going into it if you want a different perspective.

Again, this doesn’t mean I support Volkswagen’s ways and it doesn’t by any means give them a free pass. I just think people are blowing it a bit out of proportion. If the legal limit is 10 parts per million and you’re putting out 400 parts per million, that’s the difference between 0.001% and 0.04%. Yes it’s cumulative between all cars, but still, nothing like what it was several years back when the “legal” level was way higher than it is now.