EPA to unveil effort to detect automaker cheating

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The Environmental Protection Agency is working on new tests to detect cheating on the part of automakers in the wake of Volkswagen AG’s massive cheating scandal.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters at a Wall Street Journal forum on Tuesday that the agency won’t sit still and is “upping its game” to catch cheaters.

VW was able to evade U.S. emissions requirements for 482,000 2009-2015 diesel cars by using sophisticated software that only turned on emissions equipment during testing. It’s not clear if VW did that to boost low-end torque, raise fuel efficiency or avoid more costly emissions requirements.

The fact that VW was able to get away with the cheating for nearly seven years suggests the agency must take new steps to detect bad behavior, analysts say. Cars are very sophisticated machines with more than 100 million lines of code.

The VW emissions issue came to the attention of the EPA in 2014 after independent analysis by researchers at West Virginia University — working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization — raised questions about emissions levels. After extensive testing, EPA confirmed that the vehicles were emitting up to 40 times the allowable pollution in road use.

The EPA told The Detroit News on Friday that it was investigating whether other automakers had similar problems. But McCarthy said so far it appears VW is an “outlier.”

This will not be the first time in recent years that EPA has had to change its rules to ensure companies are complying with emissions.

In February, the EPA issued new guidelines to automakers for conducting fuel economy testing. The move came after five major automakers have had to restate mileage ratings for certain models.

The guidelines detail how vehicles must be prepared before being tested — including what is an acceptable level of wear on the tires and how vehicles should be broken in prior to testing.

Also at issue are tests used to determine the impact of aerodynamic drag and tire rolling resistance on gas mileage. Currently, that is measured at 50 miles per hour. Under the new guidelines, automakers must measure the results at all speeds up to 70 mph.

In 2014, the agency said it was considering writing new formal regulations covering mileage labeling by automakers. Instead, it is opting to issue the guidelines. It typically takes EPA two to three years to write new legal binding mandates.

Chris Grundler, the EPA’s director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said in an interview in February that “it’s a very dynamic time” in the auto industry, and the agency doesn’t want to spend several years crafting rules that could be outdated when issued.

“Writing regulations takes time,” Grundler said. “When you are working in the rapidly changing environment that we’re in right now, we want to make sure that we are agile enough and flexible enough to change with those times.”

He said new guidelines are aimed at getting better results. He noted that the EPA will follow the guidelines when it conducts audits of automaker testing.

In November, Korean automakers Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. agreed to a record-setting $360 million settlement for overstating fuel economy ratings for 1.2 million 2011-13 U.S. vehicles. The settlement includes a $100 million civil penalty, forfeiting $210 million in greenhouse gas emission credits and spending $50 million to ensure independent auditing of its current and future vehicles.

After an investigation by the EPA, Hyundai and Kia in November 2012 agreed to restate expected gas mileage for 1.1 million vehicles in North America, including 900,000 in the United States. That reduced Hyundai-Kia’s fleetwide average fuel economy from 27 to 26 mpg for the 2012 model year. Hyundai was forced to abandon claims that four models got 40 mpg.

In August 2013, Ford Motor Co. dropped mileage ratings for the 2013 C-Max hybrid from a combined 47 mpg to 43 mpg. In June 2014, Ford Motor Co. said it is lowering the fuel ratings on six new cars and would make payments of $125 to $1,050 to more than 200,000 owners.

The move was a significant embarrassment to Ford, which has emphasized the fuel efficiency of vehicles in its lineup. It was he second time in a year that Ford has had to correct its mileage numbers.

Under current rules, Ford was able to assign the same fuel efficiency rating to the C-Max as the Fusion hybrid because they’re in the same family. While that’s worked for conventional cars, it hasn’t been as accurate for hybrids.

Other German automakers besides VW have faced EPA scrutiny. In October, BMW AG agreed to reduce its fuel economy ratings on four 2014 Mini Cooper models.

BMW reduced the combined fuel economy of the three-door manual transmission to 33 miles per gallon from 34 mpg, the three-door semi-automatic from 33 to 32, the Cooper S 3-door manual from 29 to 28 and the semi-automatic version from 31 to 30. The biggest fall is in the highway rating for the Cooper S 3-door manual will fall from 38 to 34 mpg.

Also last year, another Daimler AG agreed to lower the mpg ratings on two of its Mercedes-Benz vehicles after a government audit turned up a problem.

Mercedes-Benz made minor changes to two models. It will reduce the city mpg figure for the 2013-14 C300 to 19 mpg from 20 mpg, but the combined 22 mpg and 27 mpg highway value will remain the same. For the 2013-14 4-Matic PZEV the combined mpg fell to 22 mpg from 23 mpg, while the city and highway mpg figures both fell by 1 mpg to 19 and 28, respectively.