Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

The Tailpipe Blues

Bertell Schmitt at the automotive blog Daily Kanban writes about a bizarre twist in emissions testing. As it turns out, cars have essentially been lying to regulators about their fuel efficiency and the amount of pollutants they spew into the air. Volkswagen is about to recall a half-million cars:

The EPA was righteously appalled to find out that Volkswagen diesel “cars contained software that turns off emissions controls when driving normally and turns them on when the car is undergoing an emissions test,” as enforcement officer Cynthia Giles told reporters. OMG, really? How naïve can they be? Defeat devices are as old as emission controls. When computers entered cars some 40 years ago, they soon more or less routinely contained software that turned a car into a clean kitten when on the dyno, and into a pig when on the road. Cheater 1.0 saw that only one axle was turning, and deduced that the car was sitting on a dyno. […]

Cheating became so prevalent that a “Prohibition of defeat devices” entered the U.S. books in 2007. The rules also say that the EPA “may test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device.” It may, but it didn’t.

So the EPA never would have found out if it weren’t for the ingenious sleuthing performed by some watchdogs. What brilliant feats of reverse-engineering did they perform? What arcane rituals did they perform upon these Damned Cars to glean such profound insights into the oiled heart of these steely beasts?

Finally, a little known group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, did what should have been obvious: Stick a probe into the exhaust pipe, and actually drive the car around the country. In this real world test, “the Jetta exceeded the U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The Passat was 5 to 20 times the standard,” says Bloomberg. The EPA opened an investigation into Volkswagen more than a year ago. Finally, Volkswagen admitted to be using a defeat device, if they wouldn’t have confessed, the EPA still would be sitting in the dark.

They… drove it. They drove it around and looked at what came out of the exhaust pipe.

That’s some fine regulating, EPA. Real fine.

Update Sep. 22, 2015: Volkswagen was off by a factor of 20. Not just with their emissions, but with the number of cars affected. It’s not half a million, it’s eleven million cars.