VW Gamed Emissions Tests to Dodge U.S. and California Air Quality Safeguards

Monday, September 21, 2015

Volkswagen used a computer algorithm to fool emissions testing equipment on hundreds of thousands of cars since 2009, according to the California Air Resources Control Board (CARB) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance, said that VW’s actions posed “a threat to public health.” She said the cars emit as much as 40 times the level of pollutants allowed under clean air rules when they are on the road.

Mark Kleiman described how it worked:

“Code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal—that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty—operations. . . . This wasn’t one rogue engineer or engineering group at work. People up and down the chain had to be party to the crime.”

On Friday, the Obama Administration issued a notice of violation (NOV) and demanded the recall of 482,000 VW and Audi 4-cyclindar diesel-powered cars nationwide. The New York Times said Volkswagen was cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

The driving public is used to hearing about auto industry manufacturers cutting corners and putting dangerous products on the road. More than 33 million vehicles were recalled by more than10 car manufacturers that used shrapnel-spewing Takata airbags.

But consumer advocate Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, said Volkswagen’s gambit was special. “This is several steps beyond the violations that we’ve seen from other auto companies,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They appear to have designed a system with the intention to mislead consumers and the government.”  

The software fooled emissions-testing equipment into thinking levels of the pollutant nitrogen oxide, responsible for ozone and smog, were lower than they actually were during normal use. By disengaging the pollution controls, the vehicles attained higher performance levels, better acceleration and stronger torque.

There was no indication whether the vehicles would actually be recalled. The EPA could order a recall, but Reuters said that could take a year. Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, heavily markets its vehicles as “clean diesel.”

Volkswagen shenanigans were first detected last year in a test program by the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) and West Virginia University. They brought their suspicions about elevated nitrogen oxide emissions to the EPA and CARB, the latter of which had been conducting its own tests of emissions from European-made diesel vehicles.

CARB shared its findings with VW, which proposed some software recalibrations and initiated a December 2014 recall to make the fixes. But the tinkering sidestepped the fundamental computer code that caused the problem. CARB did follow-up testing in May and showed the company its test results on July 8. They weren’t very good.

In a letter to VW dated September 18, CARB wrote: “As you know, these discussions over several months culminated in VW’s admission in early September 2015 that it has, since model year 2009, employed a defeat device to circumvent CARB and the EPA test procedures.”

Diesel models affected by the VW software include: Jetta (2009-15), Beetle (2009-15), Audi A3 (2009-15), Golf (2009-15) and Passat (2012-15).

The agencies decided the recall had been a failure and filed the notice of violation. It is considered just the opening volley in a long process that will continue while the polluting vehicles tool around the country and the parties responsible walk around free.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

VW Is Said to Cheat on Diesel Emissions; U.S. Orders Big Recall (by Coral Davenport and Jack Ewing, New York Times)

WTF, Volkswagen? (by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

Pure Evil, VW Edition (by Mark Kleiman)

Volkswagen Could Face $18 Billion Penalties from EPA (by Timothy Gardner and Bernie Woodall, Reuters)

VW Cheated on U.S. Pollution Tests for “Clean Diesels” (by Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times)

EPA, California Notify Volkswagen of Clean Air Act Violations (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Letter to Volkswagen (California Air Resources Control Board)

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