How Volkswagen cheated on the auto emissions rules

posted at 11:01 am on September 20, 2015 by Jazz Shaw

This story is a bit far afield from the normal politics and crime beat, but given how it just came at us out of left field it’s worth questioning whether or not a much larger can of worms has been opened up. The EPA announced this week that Volkswagen was in a lot of trouble – potentially facing billions of dollars in fines – for allegedly rigging the system and creating diesel cars which were designed to cheat on emissions tests during inspection. And they don’t seem to be disputing it, either. (Yahoo Finance News)

U.S. and California environmental regulators on Friday accused Volkswagen AG of deliberately circumventing clean air rules on nearly 500,000 diesel cars and the company could face penalties of up to $18 billion.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged that Volkswagen used software in four-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars from model years 2009 to 2015 to circumvent emissions testing of certain air pollutants.

“Put simply, these cars contained software that turns off emissions controls when driving normally and turns them on when the car is undergoing an emissions test,” Cynthia Giles, an enforcement officer at the EPA, told reporters in a teleconference.

This isn’t a case of any sort of trick carburetor or jury rigged catalytic converter. The vehicle’s onboard computer could sense when it was hooked up to a diagnostics machine for an emissions test and would conveniently turn on all of its emission control features. (It’s being referred to as a “defeat device.”) Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance but also increasing emissions. You almost have to admire the sheer audacity assuming this is true. And given the initial responses from the company they don’t seem to be claiming that they didn’t do it. (Bloomberg)

VW admitted systematically cheating on U.S. air pollution tests for years, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday in citing violations that could add up to $18 billion in fines. The company said it has also heard from the Justice Department, which the EPA said could pursue criminal prosecution.

The German automaker has struggled to gain a foothold in the world’s
second-biggest car market with a strategy built in part on touting the efficiency of fun-to-drive “clean diesel” vehicles now shown to be anything but.

So far Volkswagen seems to be taking the line of assuring everyone that they will work to recall the cars and “fix” them to eliminate this problem. It likely won’t bankrupt a company that size, but it’s one heck of an expensive piece of humble pie to eat. If they contest the fines and go to court, however, I’m wondering if they will actually lose. This was some mischief designed to short sheet the system no doubt, but would they have an out if the case goes before a judge? I was looking over some of the state level requirements for the testing of vehicles and the boundaries to be followed are rather bare bones at best. Each vehicle in the qualifying categories which was manufactured after 1996 has to be equipped with an On-Board Diagnostics Generation II (OBDII) system. The emissions portion of this is heavily tied into your annoying “check engine” light.

The way most of the regulations are written seems to indicate that the vehicle must have a functional system of this type which is accurately monitoring system performance and meets the maximum emissions requirements at the time of testing. Obviously the VW vehicles in question were doing just that. But cars today have all sorts of bells and whistles which drivers can use to customize their driving experience. They can switch from “performance” mode to “economy” mode with the push of a button. Things like that obviously affect the vehicle’s emissions. Other such options are available. And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. None of that changes the fact that the emissions were within the required limits at the time of testing.

Of course that’s a horribly transparent dodge in terms of legal tactics, but the law is generally held to and enforced based on how it is written. Volkswagen was obviously gaming the system here but if it’s going to come down to 18 billion in fines I can’t help but wonder if they won’t make a run at a defense like that in court.

Exit question: how likely is it that the geniuses at VW and Audi were the only ones to dream this up? This sounds like the sort of thing that a group of engineers might assume was never going to be found out because who is going around doing extra testing of vehicle emissions outside of an inspection station? (In fact, I’m still wondering how the EPA caught on to this unless VW had a disgruntled whistle blower among their ranks.) Are the big, American automakers scrambling right now to cover their own code?


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Comments

Exit question: how likely is it that…

I saw what you did there… channeling Allah P!

leftnomore on September 21, 2015 at 5:42 AM

124 dead, who knows how many injured, because of GM ignition defect and they escape with a fine of $0.9 billion.

agmartin on September 20, 2015 at 5:33 PM

Yeah, but we are talking human lives, even Planned Parenthood couldn’t get that much out of only 124 murdered babies.

But Volkswagen committed a mortal sin against Government and Gaia – $18B is as close to Hell is they can get without permanently bankrupting VW and displacing the holy eunuchs of government – the union thug.

Reuben Hick on September 21, 2015 at 7:35 AM

Based on the Supreme Court’s recent Obamacare decision, if the law says “at the time of testing” it doesn’t actually mean at the time of testing but rather means whatever the government wants it to mean at any given point in time.

LeoMcNeil on September 21, 2015 at 7:36 AM

Minor correction – for diesel-powered vehicles, OBD-II went into effect with the 2007 model year, which is why Volkswagen didn’t produce TDI cars in 2007 and 2008.

With that said, I should have seen something suspicious when VW went from 100 hp with the 2006-model-year TDIs to 140 hp with the 2009-model-year TDIs with little more than a 0.1-liter boost in displacement (upped again to 150 hp with the 2015 diesel-exhaust-fluid-equipped models). I have to wonder how much of that 40-50 hp gain will be clawed back with the emissions controls enabled.

Steve Eggleston on September 21, 2015 at 8:53 AM

Probably because the government hasn’t forced can’t force diesel to have ethanol added to it.

Zooid on September 20, 2015 at 11:51 AM

FIFY.

Adding ethanol to diesel fuel would be VERY interesting indeed. But only for a short time…

climbnjump on September 20, 2015 at 11:58 AM

You have heard of biodiesel, right? It seems that when Minnesota mandated a minimum biodiesel blend a few years back, it turned out that bio-laced diesel gels at a higher temperature than normal diesel, even with the usual percentage of anti-gel additives mandated by Minnesota.

Steve Eggleston on September 21, 2015 at 8:58 AM

Of course that’s a horribly transparent dodge in terms of legal tactics, but the law is generally held to and enforced based on how it is written. Volkswagen was obviously gaming the system here but if it’s going to come down to 18 billion in fines I can’t help but wonder if they won’t make a run at a defense like that in court.

Coincidentally (NOT), $18 billion is roughly what the Treasury won’t be otherwise recovering from their former ownership stakes in GM and Chrysler.

Steve Eggleston on September 21, 2015 at 9:00 AM

“Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance … And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. The article.”

So modern emissions requirements interfere with performance.

I used to drive a Taurus wagon, and it was a heavier, V-6 engine, and a streamlined long low body, and on the down hill, you just took your foot off the gas and you were up the next hill before you had to give it any more gas, and you could tell cruise control did that too. You got great gas mileage highway driving, up to 30mpg highway. Then when everything went high tech they could not reproduce that, because the cruise control had busy slowing the vehicle down on the down hill. Why would you expend energy to slow you down as you go down a hill? That is what this emissions issue reminds me of. Fixing a problem that was not broken.

There are so many regulations on cars that they have to do “work arounds” so you can just drive. (It explains why vehicles don’t seem to accelerate and merge into traffic like they should.) Cafe standards are stupid, when they apply to a “fleet,” and make the company produce more “Civics” than people want to buy. Market forces and high technology can do more for improvements and safety than government hamstrings. A lot of the things that keep you safer in a heavier car are made difficult by the CAFE standards.

Fleuries on September 21, 2015 at 10:26 AM

Strickler’s Life Lessons Learned #10:

“Rules are written for others to follow. The rule writers are exempt.”

Examples:
1. EPA can pollute rivers, but VW can’t pollute air.

2. Hillary can do whatever she wants even if anyone one else doing the same would never see daylight ever again.

3. Supreme Court can decide words mean whatever they want whenever they want and change the definitions for each situation, such as “privacy”, “tax”, “fine”, “purpose”, etc.

strickler on September 21, 2015 at 10:56 AM

Who in their right mind would want their car “fixed” to always be in the clean emissions mode? I’m sure it lowers gas mileage and horsepower. Pass!

clement on September 21, 2015 at 11:22 AM

“Who in their right mind would want their car “fixed” to always be in the clean emissions mode? I’m sure it lowers gas mileage and horsepower.”

Also, if the emissions equipment is always “ON” then it will wear out sooner — and that equipment is very expensive.

Low-information TDI owners will likely say, Sure, Go ahead and install the software fix — and then complain later about poor fuel economy and reduced power. Informed owners will either avoid the dealerships entirely or make sure — in writing — that the service department will NOT install any recall software.

J Baustian on September 21, 2015 at 1:12 PM