EPA takes new steps to foil emissions test cheating
Ann Arbor — The Environmental Protection Agency is “upping” its game and will begin testing both diesel- and gas-powered vehicles already on the road, to make sure that automakers haven’t been cheating on tests that measure smog-forming emissions.
The announcement came Friday as Volkswagen AG’s massive diesel-testing scandal continued to unfold.
The EPA will conduct more spot checks of light-duty cars and trucks, testing vehicles owned by individuals and rental companies in real-world driving conditions. The EPA also could take cars from manufacturers’ assembly lines.
It will look particularly closely at Volkwagen’s 3-liter diesel engines; 2-liter diesels from the automaker have been cited for producing up to 40 times the emissions allowed in the United States.
Volkswagen has admitted to a sophisticated scheme in which a hidden bit of software in its 2-liter diesel cars allowed emissions-control equipment to function normally when being tested in laboratory conditions, but disabled that equipment during normal driving conditions. VW says the scheme affects 11 million vehicles worldwide, including 482,000 in the United States. Affected cars include 2009-15 Volkswagen Jetta, Passat, SportWagen, Beetle and Audi A3 cars with the diesel engines.
The EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions lab in Ann Arbor will conduct some of the real-world vehicle emissions testing, along with the California Air Resources Board and Environment Canada. All three entities plan to share results.
Chris Grundler, director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, would not provide specifics, but said the EPA has 23 portable systems to use for testing. He said the three agencies plan in the coming weeks to test all existing diesel configurations, from all manufacturers, that are sold in North America.
The EPA sent letters to automakers Friday, warning that it will take further steps to prevent fraud. New safeguards will “detect any kind of defeat devices” that might turn off pollution-control equipment, Grundler said. He called the new tests part of an “evolution” of enforcement.
The letters tell carmakers that the EPA may test or require testing of a vehicle “using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use.”
Volkswagen faces up to $18 billion in fines by the EPA; criminal investigations by U.S. and German prosecutors; and regulatory probes around the world. Attorneys general from 29 states, including Michigan, are investigating.
CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned Wednesday, apologizing for the scandal but admitting no personal knowledge of it. Volkswagen on Friday named the head of its Porsche division, Matthias Mueller, as his replacement.
It’s not clear if VW tried to skirt regulations to boost performance, raise fuel efficiency or avoid more costly emissions equipment.
Issue surfaced in 2014
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 the amount of pollutants coming from tailpipes of Volkswagen diesels. After extensive testing, EPA confirmed the cars were producing up to 40 times the allowable pollution when driven in real-world conditions.
The agency noted that diesel cars and light trucks make up less than 1 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. — and account for less than 0.2 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, which is a greenhouse gas. Heavy-duty trucks are responsible for the vast majority of diesel emissions. VW took advantage of the lack of focus by EPA on diesel-powered passenger vehicles to cheat for seven years.
All three Detroit automakers — General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — have said they do not use defeat devices.
BMW said diesels represent 6 percent of its U.S. sales, or about 20,000 vehicles last year. Chevrolet sells a diesel version of its compact Cruze. Jeep has the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel and Ram sells the 1500 EcoDiesel pickup. Mercedes-Benz also sells several diesels in the U.S.
“Mercedes-Benz does not use defeat devices which illegally limit the effectiveness of the exhaust after-treatment system,” the German carmaker said in a statement. “This applies to every Mercedes-Benz diesel and gas engine worldwide.”
BMW said in a statement that “our exhaust treatment systems are active whether rolling on the test bench or driving on the road.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an advocacy group representing 12 large carmakers, said in a short statement Friday that it is “certain all automakers will be reviewing EPA’s guidance.”
Fix not clear yet
This will not be the first time in recent years that the EPA has had to change its rules. In February, it issued new guidelines to automakers for conducting fuel economy testing. The move came after five major automakers had to restate mileage ratings for certain models.
It’s not clear yet whether the fix for VW diesels will be a software patch or new pollution-control hardware.
The 482,000 offending cars in the U.S. have three generations of engines. Grunler said the EPA expected a solution for Generation 3 engines — 92,000 2015-16 models — “relatively quickly.” A fix for Generation 2 engines — installed in 91,000 2012-14 Passats — will come “soon thereafter.” A solution for 300,000 cars with Generation 1 engines — all 2009-14 diesels except the Passat — “will take longer.”
The U.S. has not issued a recall for the vehicles, but Volkswagen ordered a stop-sale on 2015 2-liter diesel models. The EPA has refused to certify any 2-liter 2016 Volkswagen diesel for sale in the U.S.
On Friday, the first lawsuit in Detroit was filed against VW, one of more than a dozen suits pending nationwide. A Michigan owner said he “would not have paid the additional $3,000 or more dollars the added ‘clean diesel’ engine increased the purchase price over a gasoline-powered model,” according to the 37-page complaint. The suit also names the Farmington Hills VW dealer that sold him the 2011 Jetta.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for the higher purchase price and loss in the resale value of the car.