EPA charges that VW installed emissions-control software designed to work only during EPA testing

By Benjamin Hulac | 09/21/2015 08:56 AM EDT

National and state air regulators, in a notice mailed to Volkswagen AG on Friday, accused the company of installing software in about half a million cars designed to pass federal emissions tests but release higher-than-acceptable levels in everyday driving situations.

National and state air regulators, in a notice mailed to Volkswagen AG on Friday, accused the company of installing software in about half a million cars designed to pass federal emissions tests but release higher-than-acceptable levels in everyday driving situations.

In the violation notice, issued to the car company and subsidiaries Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America Inc., U.S. EPA said the company built and installed these computer algorithms in approximately 482,000 diesel cars sold since 2008.

The software allowed VW cars to activate emission controls during emission tests but during normal use to release up to 40 times the permitted amount of nitrogen oxides, or NOx — which help generate low-hanging ozone that blankets cities — and minute particulate matter, which causes breathing issues and is linked to millions of early deaths (ClimateWire, Sept. 17).


"While individual vehicles don’t create a health threat, collectively they do harm public health," said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Both particulate matter and NOx have climate change impacts. NOx dissipates faster than carbon dioxide but helps create tropospheric ozone, a more potent greenhouse gas.

EPA named five types of four-cylinder diesels — the Audi A3, Beetle, Golf, Jetta and Passat, all of which have the same engine — in its notice.

VW Sportwagen
The 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen came with a “clean diesel” engine, but allegedly only during U.S. EPA testing. | Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

EPA did not issue a recall and said the cars remain safe and legal to drive and also legal to sell. Fixing the cars’ emission systems will be incumbent upon Volkswagen, the agency said.

Volkswagen violated the Clean Air Act, officials said, under which the penalty could reach $37,500 per car, or slightly more than $18 billion, a figure a U.S. EPA official said is accurate.

The German automaker, the largest worldwide by sales, concealed vital information from the U.S. federal government, the public and the California Air Resources Board (ARB), said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. Investigations by EPA and ARB are underway.

"These violations are very serious. We expected better from VW," Giles said.

"Our goal now is to ensure that the affected cars are brought into compliance, to dig more deeply into the extent and implications of Volkswagen’s efforts to cheat on clean air rules," said Richard Corey, executive officer of ARB, in a statement.

Earlier, VW admitted its vehicles contained software being questioned

Volkswagen admitted earlier this month that the vehicles contained defeat devices.

Volkswagen "manufactured and installed" sophisticated software, known under federal law as "defeat devices," which can be programmed to detect when vehicles are being tested to meet emission requirements, officials said.

"[The device] senses whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation and barometric pressure," the violation notice reads. "These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure" used for EPA certification, it reads.

Two years ago, met with puzzling results from on-road and in-the-lab vehicle tests, examiners did the research and asked questions that would ultimately trigger Friday’s announcement.

The International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research group, had commissioned West Virginia University researchers to test three European diesels — a Jetta, a Passat and a BMW X5 — and study NOx emissions and other pollutants under real-world scenarios.

Tested on a dynamometer — a large treadmill-type platform for cars, sometimes called a "rolling road," that measures for torque, power and other vehicle metrics — the VWs passed. Yet under real-world conditions, testers drove the cars equipped with emissions-tracking sensors between Southern California and Seattle, and the VWs spewed far more from their tailpipes than legally allowed.

The Jetta’s emissions were 15 to 35 times higher than acceptable. For the Passat, they were five to 20 times higher, while the BMW averaged levels either at or below the legal threshold.

"This inconsistency was a major factor in ICCT’s decision to contact CARB and EPA about our test results," ICCT said Friday.

Trail of evidence started in Europe

"Ironically, the reason we tested these vehicles is that we were finding high vehicle emissions from light-duty cars in Europe," said Drew Kodjak, ICCT’s executive director, in an interview.

The team’s hypothesis was that the European emissions tests were flimsier than U.S. tests, he said.

"The vehicle was programmed to ‘switch,’ as the EPA says, from low emissions to high efficiency," Kodjak said. Asked what automakers have to gain from installing so-called defeat devices, experts said they can save the company money on warranty claims, make the vehicle more fun to drive and, likely ironic to some, improve fuel economy.

"It’s a performance boost. It’s fuel savings," Kodjak said, explaining that as cars have gotten more advanced, the industry has increasingly relied on software patches and digital code to update its models.

Daniel Carder, now the interim director of the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions at West Virginia University, worked on the WVU report, which the team published in May of 2014.

If automakers have software algorithms or updates that don’t meet federal code, they can negotiate with EPA, Carder said in an interview. And both parties hash out approval of "auxiliary emission control devices," like the ones VW used, he said.

"That’s all confidential information," Carder said.

Petrolheads worldwide purchase and then erase or modify computer chips in their vehicles’ computers, called electronic control units, or ECUs, to get better performance, efficiency and fuel savings. Online, these chips are available for a few hundred dollars.

"It’s like a tremendous number of people that do this," said John Storey, an automotive and emissions expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, putting the figure of "chipped" models between 40 and 60 percent of all diesel pickup trucks in the United States. One byproduct of all this tampering: higher emissions of gases like NOx. "These are completely illegal, but no one ever gets caught," he said.

Congressman wants EPA to consider ‘severe action’

"If Volkswagen willfully sought to evade the Clean Air Act and fraudulently sold cars to millions of consumers with this technology, EPA should pursue the most severe action possible to deter others from doing the same," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

"Such deceitful actions violated the law and misled consumers, while other law abiding companies were disadvantaged and the public health was put at risk," he said. "We must ensure that this does not happen again and that consumers can trust the products that they buy."

Yet similar violations have happened before.

The Justice Department and EPA settled with seven heavy-duty diesel engine companies in 1998 for more than a billion dollars over remarkably similar charges: The manufacturers had installed defeat devices in software packages, which let the trucks pass federal tests but led to up to three times the legal limit of NOx gases when driven on the highway.

Dynamometer tests are flawed in part because the conditions they put a car under can be easy to predict and, in turn, beat.

"Well, we hope they’re not common," said Kodjak of the ICCT, referring to defeat devices. "You run a risk of getting caught, and the penalties are severe," he said, noting the heavy-duty truck settlement in 1998. "But it is true that unless there is random testing of vehicles, you know, you might, you might not get caught," he said.

Don Anair, research and deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said holding car companies to the same standard is vital.

"It appears they did this with the intent of clearly making the emissions performance different on the test cycle, which I think is the most surprising," Anair said in an interview. "Testing in real-world situations is critical," he said, to confirm that car companies are operating on a "level playing field."

The diesel share of the U.S. auto market is slightly less than 1 percent of all car sales in 2014. But a large portion of the diesels are VW-made, which means diesel vehicles could be responsible for between 10 and 25 percent of all NOx emissions from light-duty cars last year, according to Dave Cooke, a vehicle analyst at UCS.

CEO of VW orders external investigation

Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, said the company takes seriously these allegation of "manipulations that violate American environmental standards." The company ordered an external investigation into the matter and will cooperate fully to "openly and completely establish all of the facts of this case," he said.

"I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public," Winterkorn said in a statement. "The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset. We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused."

In an email, Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean vehicles and fuels project, said cars emit up to 30 percent of the NOx and volatile organic compounds in areas that fail ambient air quality standards, releasing smog and soot skyward. "It’s very disturbing to learn that VW is flouting those standards," he said.

"Why would they think they’d get away with it?" asked Storey, the Oak Ridge scientist, noting the use of the defeat devices went on for six model years. "It’s ludicrous."