Did VW Expose Flaws in US Emissions-Testing?

News emerged last week that Volkswagen used a software trick to circumvent emissions testing, putting 1000s of high-polluting diesel cars onto U.S. roads.

Volkswagen is in deep trouble. News emerged last week that the German automaker used a software trick to circumvent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions testing, putting hundreds of thousands of high-polluting diesel cars onto U.S. roads.

The backlash has been extreme. Several news outlets have run stories featuring angry complaints from customers who thought they were buying environmentally responsible cars. On Wednesday, the company’s CEO resigned.

Volkswagen deserves every ounce of the criticism it’s getting, but the scandal also says something important about our emissions-testing system. The carmaker’s malfeasance exposed a hole in our regulatory net, and we must immediately patch it.

First, a review of how Volkswagen cheated the system. Most emissions tests happen in laboratories, not on roads. The cars run on an automotive treadmill, while a computer analyzes what’s coming out of the tailpipe. The test simulates different driving conditions: highway driving, stop-and-go traffic, different ambient temperatures, etc.

Volkswagen programmed its cars’ computers to detect the fact that they were undergoing a test rather than driving on actual roads. When the computer recognized a test was underway, it changed the engine’s behavior—it may have allowed the engine to run hot during testing to optimize the breakdown of nitrogen oxides, while cooling the engine during ordinary driving to optimize fuel efficiency. The computer may also have activated the nitrogen oxide trap—a fuel-hungry device—only during emissions testing.

The company’s gambit is nothing new. Automakers have used defeat devices to beat emissions tests for decades. Volkswagen itself paid a $120,000 fine in 1973 after the government found it had installed a device to disable emissions-control systems. Ford and Chrysler have also been caught trying to trick environmental regulators.

Volkswagen’s fraud didn’t even employ novel technology, as far as anyone can tell. Many cars can recognize emissions testing for completely legitimate reasons. Anti-skid systems—which use inconsistencies between the turning of the wheels and the vehicle’s movement to detect when the car is out of control—have to be disabled when the car is on rollers. Volkswagen likely used a variant of the same technology for nefarious purposes.

The ease with which Volkswagen evaded regulators—using old tricks and available technology—raises serious questions. The company hoodwinked U.S. regulators for seven years. The California Air Resources Board says it was investigating suspicious inconsistencies between lab-based tests and on-road emissions, but it appears only a 2014 tip from a European environmental group set off a serious and aggressive enforcement action against Volkswagen. It’s not clear how long the fraud would have continued without that bit of good fortune.

The first lesson to take from this scandal, therefore, is that regulators must learn to think like cheaters.

Our emissions-testing system assumes that automakers are honest. For example, manufacturers conduct the overwhelming majority of the testing in their own facilities. The EPA merely approves the work based on a written summary of the testing. The agency independently tests only 10 percent to 15 percent of new models.

There’s a Russian proverb that became popular during the era of nuclear disarmament: Doveryai, no proveryai. “Trust, but verify.” The current emissions testing system is too much trust, not enough verify.

The second lesson from the scam is that even the most imaginative regulator needs adequate resources.

The EPA cannot independently test the emissions of every vehicle model with the shoestring budget that Congress provides. And the agency has virtually no money to spot-check the on-road emissions from individual cars at dealerships. The Volkswagen scandal showed that those tests are vital.

The tech to construct a truly effective emissions-testing regime is available. Portable emissions measurement systems allow regulators to drive cars on real-world roadways, double-checking the results of lab-based tests. Even better would be laser-based, on-road testing, which can measure the emissions of passing vehicles. Many states already use these systems on a limited scale. By aggregating the results of these on-road emissions tests, it would be easy enough to ferret out car models that are in persistent violation.

But while these technologies would make cheating much more difficult, they cost money. Congress has cut the EPA’s budget 20 percent in the last five years, and the agency’s workforce has contracted by 12 percent in the last decade. Denying the agency the resources to do its job, then blaming its people for failure, is hypocritical.

There’s one other thing we ought to do in the wake of this scandal: Throw the book at Volkswagen. “Someone at Volkswagen thought they could get away with this, or they wouldn’t have done it,” says Roland Hwang, director of NRDC’s energy and transportation program (disclosure). “We need to make sure the penalties are sufficient to deter future cheating.”

It’s often said that every crisis is an opportunity. The fraudsters at Volkswagen may have dirtied our air and broken our laws, but they also did us a favor by highlighting cracks in our regulatory regime. We have the resources to seal them. We also have a chance to make an example of the people who flouted our clean air standards. There is a potential for $18 billion in fines and the possibility of criminal penalties for those found personally responsible. Volkswagen also has to regain the trust of its customers and try to clean its sullied name. But whatever the fate of the automaker,  our laws—and our air—must emerge from this better than before.

This post first appeared in OnEarth.

By Brian Palmer

Palmer covers daily environmental news for Earthwire. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications.