In a surprise move which could see Volkswagen face massive fines and be forced to recall of nearly half a million VW Diesel cars made and sold in the U.S. over the past six year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued the German automaker with an official Notice of Violation under Part A of Title II of the Clean Air Act.
As the document shows the EPA says it has determined that Volkswagen of North America Inc — which includes both Volkswagen and Audi brands — “manufactured and installed defeat devices in certain model year 2009 through 2015 diesel light-duty vehicles equipped with 2.0 liter engines.”
“These defeat devices bypass, defeat or render inoperative elements of the vehicles’ emission control system that exist to comply with CAA emission standards,” the Notice of Violation continues.
What’s more, it says Volkswagen has admitted to circumventing the regulations.
Models accused of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act include 2.0-liter diesel-engined variants of some of Volkswagen’s most popular U.S. vehicles, including the Volkswagen Golf TDI, Beetle TDI, Jetta TDI, Jetta Sportwagen TDI and Audi A3 TDI.
Under the Clean Air Act — which covers a wide variety of different industries and emission types ranging from the airline industry to manufacturing — vehicle manufacturers are required to comply with basic minimum air quality standards for all the vehicles they produce and sell. These standards detail the maximum levels in parts per million (ppm) of harmful gasses like nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide as well as particulate matter that a vehicle can emit for a given volume of exhaust gas.
Those gasses, particularly nitrogen oxides, contribute to poor air quality and smog on hot summer days. These in turn, are linked to the increased numbers of respiratory problems in children, premature deaths and thousands of sick days across the nation. And when people take sick days due to asthma or other health problems caused by poor air quality, that costs the U.S. economy millions of dollars in lost revenue every year.
In order to be legally approved for sale in the United States, every new model destined for the market must undergo strict emissions testing in a laboratory on a rolling road, where exhaust gasses are measured to ensure compliance with EPA regulations. The laboratory tests, while carried out on a rolling road, are intended to mimic real-world use cycles and therefore replicate real-world emissions.
Naturally, all modern internal combustion engines are designed by automakers to offer the best possible power and torque while minimizing emissions and maximizing fuel efficiency. But while it’s true that modern, lightweight engines built with incredible precision are naturally far more energy efficient and produce far less emissions than engines produced even five or ten years ago, the key to getting the very best out of a modern internal combustion engine relies on the engine management software used to control every aspect of the combustion cycle.
These systems, which contain millions of lines of code, control everything from cylinder compression through to fuel injection, combustion, timing and exhaust management — and one line of erroneous code could easily result in a bug which causes the system to fail or become non-complaint with the regulations.
But, says the EPA, that’s not what happened in the case of Volkswagen. Instead, it alleges, Volkswagen designed an engine management profile which ensured under certain conditions that its vehicles complied with the CAA — but the rest of the time did not. In other words, the ‘device’ mentioned by the EPA isn’t a specific stand-alone unit but rather a piece of engine management code, something the EPA says it is calling a “switch” in its official paperwork.
“VW manufactured and installed software in the electronic control module (ECM) of these vehicles that sensed when the vehicle was being tested for compliance with EPA emission standards,” the EPA alleges. “The ‘switch’ 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. These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure used for emission testing for EPA certification purposes.”
“During EPA emission testing, the vehicles’ ECM ran software which produced compliant emission results under and ECM calibration that VW referred to as the ‘dyno calibration’ (referring to the equipment used in emission testing, called a dynamometer,” it continued. “At all other times during normal vehicle operation the ‘switch’ was activated and the vehicle ECM software ran a separate ‘road calibration’ which reduced the effectiveness of the emission control system (specifically the selective catalytic reduction or the lean NOx trap).”
Those allegations are bad enough — but the EPA notes that with the so-called ‘switch’ in operation, NOx emissions from the tailpipe of affected cars rose to between 10 and 40 times above the the EPA compliant levels.
As a software engineer we asked about the system put it, “Yeah… they’re boned.”
The EPA says it first became aware of the issue in May 2014, when it and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) were shown results from a study commissioned by the International Council on Clean Transportation and carried out by the West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines & Emissions found that significantly higher than expected in-use emissions were recorded from a 2012 Volkswagen Jetta and 2013 Passat during testing.
During the year following the publication of the study, Volkswagen maintained that the increased emissions from the two vehicles could be traced to various technical problems with the vehicles and unusual use cycles. It even issued a voluntary recall in December 2014 to try and address the issue.
But since then, testing carried out by the EPA and CARB have shown the nightmarish scope of this particular problem: all of the diesel models fitted with the same 2.0-liter engine displayed the same behavior. It was not a problem affecting just a few cars.
“It became clear that CARB and the EPA would not approve certificates of conformity for VW’s 2016 model year diesel vehicles until VW could adequately explain the anomalous emissions and ensure the agencies that the 2016 model year vehicles would not have similar issues,” the EPA states. “Only then did VW admit it had designed and installed a defeat device in these vehicles in the form of a sophisticated software algorithm that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing.”
In response to the investigation and official notice of violation, Volkswagen issued the following response.
Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Volkswagen AG and Audi AG received today notice from the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board of an investigation related to certain emissions compliance matters. VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time.
Sadly for the EPA, such practices are common, with automakers knowingly engineering cars to perform to optimum efficiency and optimum emissions during both fuel economy and emission testing cycles.
At the time of writing, it’s not clear how big Volkswagen’s fines will be — but it’s worth noting that under the current administration, the U.S. EPA is working hard to make examples of automakers who knowingly violate or circumvent EPA regulations.
Last year, it fined South Korean Automaker Hyundai Kia $300 million for overstating the real-world fuel economy for more than 1.2 million Kia and Hyundai cars.
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