Budget shortfall meant EPA couldn’t catch Volkswagen Dieselgate cheating

Another open question in the Volkswagen Dieselgate emissions cheating scandal is – Why wasn’t Volkswagen’s fraud caught earlier?  We’ve been told the cheating began with VW’s 2009 model year 2.0 Liter TDI Diesel cars, the ones fitted with the EA 189 engine.  The cheating was not verified until early September 2015.  What happened in-between that the EPA or other regulators did not catch the cheating?  Why did it take a small European NGO, TheICCT, to find the problem by testing American version of VW TDI Diesel cars?  Their stated goal was demonstrating to European regulators what’s possible, because the American version of VW/Audi TDI Diesel cars were supposedly so clean.

A large part of the answer has already been stated.  The EPA and other government regulators don’t perform emissions or fuel efficiency or driving range tests themselves.  For example, electric car range testing is performed by the manufacturer according to an EPA-defined test procedure.  The EPA, and other government regulators, generally doesn’t have the funding to test every iteration of every car.  Instead, they’ll test a handful of cars themselves and leave the rest of the testing to the manufacturers.

What could go wrong?

Oh, and in some cases the government agency overseeing vehicle tests (including emissions tests) gets the majority of its funding from the industry.  The Guardian (of London) reported yesterday that the Vehicle Certification Agency, part of the U.K. Transport Ministry, gets about 70% of its funding from the vehicle industry it regulates.  This fact raises doubt over how independent the VCA is from industry control.  A doubt exists whether the VCA is the appropriate organization to investigate cheating by the industry, because the VCA relies on the industry for its funding.  However, that “reliance” is in the form of fees paid by the industry to cover VCA’s costs for running the tests.  The VCA’s governance and the policies it operates under are set by the government.

What could go wrong?

Why wasn’t the cheating caught by emissions tests for vehicle re-registration?

The Columbus Dispatch reported today on why didn’t regular emissions tests in Ohio catch Volkswagen’s cheating?  That’s a great question, because all cars receive regular emissions tests as part of renewing the vehicle registration.  In Ohio, only seven counties, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Summit, require emissions tests for vehicle re-registration every two years.  The other counties apparently don’t care.  Even in the counties that do require emissions tests, all they do is tap into the on-board computers to ask whether the emissions control components are functioning right.  They don’t even do a tailpipe emissions check.

My experience in California – I’ve been driving electric cars for four years now, so its been awhile since the last time I took a car for an emissions test – a tailpipe emissions check is required.  The process is similar to the conditions which would trigger VW’s cheat software.  The car is strapped down to a dynamometer, a probe stuck up the tailpipe, everything is connected to a computer, and the technician runs the car through a test procedure.  Those are the conditions VW programmed their cars to detect, and therefore it’s fair to assume their cars cheated not only official EPA tests but these state level emissions tests.

EPA helped develop the technology to catch the cheat – why didn’t they catch VW?

According to an Associated Press report, the EPA helped to develop the technology ultimately used to catch Volkswagen’s cheating.  Somehow the EPA failed to use that technology to catch VW, and instead TheICCT did so.

The difference is the official test procedure has the car strapped to a dynamometer, and is therefore stationary while undergoing the emissions test.  Volkswagen programmed the on-board computer to recognize those conditions and reprogram the emissions control.  What enabled TheICCT to catch Volkswagen’s cheat was by using mobile emissions testing equipment, and driving the car down the highway.

What happened is the EPA was focused on using this technology on heavy equipment (big trucks, etc) rather than passenger cars.  Such heavy equipment pollutes a lot more than passenger cars, and is therefore a higher priority for emissions reduction efforts.

Again, the EPA relies on automobile manufacturers to self-report testing data.   Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign told the AP: “They trust the auto companies to tell the truth. And the auto companies have proven time and again that they don’t tell the truth.  We can’t allow the students to test themselves and submit their own grades.”

The emissions tests are part of a larger set of tests overseen by the EPA.  All the vehicle ratings like fuel economy, driving range, fuel cost per year, that are certified by the EPA, presented to the public on the fueleconomy.gov website, and elsewhere, are derived from those tests.  The EPA defines the test procedures, the car makers are supposed to follow the procedure and report the results.

We rely on agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to, well, protect the environment.  That is, these agencies are charged with enforcing laws meant to protect the environment.  A part of that work is detecting problematic products and preventing their sale.

The EPA has promised to beef up its testing of automobiles, including mobile emissions tests.  However that falls into the pattern of fixing the problem which just occurred, and not ensuring the regulatory oversight is comprehensive enough to get the job done correctly.

Republicans are strangling government agencies

On the other hand, most U.S. Government agencies, including the EPA, are suffering budget shortfalls and cutbacks.  The Republicans who control both houses of Congress routinely proclaim a goal to eliminate the EPA.  Since 2010, the EPA budget has been slashed by 21%.  And it was in 2010 when Republicans took over both houses of Congress.

Roland Hwang writing on the NRDC Switchboard blog offered these suggestions and observations:

  • Transition to electric cars – impossible to cheat on tailpipe emissions when there’s no tailpipe
  • Deterring malfeasance means delivering more than a slap on the wrist
  • It’s “impossible” for regulators to review every car, especially with the mountain of software they contain nowadays
  • Even so, regulators need the resources to do their job

The base problem is that EPA doesn’t have the funding to do comprehensive testing.  The EPA could conceivably charge manufacturers fees for the tests, to make up for the budget shortfall, but wouldn’t that run the risk of impairing impartiality and independence as noted with the UK’s Vehicle Certification Authority above?

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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