EPA says VW intentionally violates clean air standards (Update)

19 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

The EPA Opposes Rules That Could’ve Exposed VW’s Cheating.

Volkswagen has been ordered to recall almost 500,000 diesel cars by the United States government after it emerged that it had used computer software to cheat clean-air laws. Washington: The US Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that Volkswagen intentionally skirted clean air laws by using a piece of software that enabled about 500,000 of its diesel cars to emit fewer smog-causing pollutants during testing than in real-world driving conditions. The agency alleges that the German automaker’s vehicles have a sophisticated algorithm that was designed to undermine official emissions testing by engaging full emissions controls only during testing and disabling them afterward.

The company said it has also heard from the Justice Department, which the EPA said could pursue criminal prosecution. second-biggest car market with a strategy built in part on touting the efficiency of fun-to-drive “clean diesel” vehicles now shown to be anything but. “It’s a huge black eye for Volkswagen,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for news at Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, California. As a result, the car maker was able to sell half a million diesel-powered vehicles that produce nitrogen oxide, which creates smog, at up to 40 times the legal limit during normal driving situations. On Friday, the agency issued Volkswagen AG, Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America (collectively VW) with a notice of noncompliance with the federal law – the so called Clean Air Act, designed to control air pollution on a national level.

The EPA learned about the issue only last year after researchers at West Virginia University published a study revealing that VW cars had emissions higher than expected. In a probe the EPA established that VW “manufactured and installed defeat devices in a certain model year 2009 through 2015 diesel light-duty vehicles with 2.0 liter engines,” the agency said in the notice.

Diesel versions of the popular Beetle, Golf, Jetta and Passat comprise more than a quarter of the brand’s sales in the U.S. and are a vital part of the company’s strategy for meeting tougher U.S. fuel economy standards going into effect in coming years. But two months ago, the EPA opposed some proposed measures that would help potentially expose subversive code like the so-called “defeat device” software VW allegedly used by allowing consumers and researchers to legally reverse-engineer the code used in vehicles. The software sensed when the vehicle was being tested for compliance with the regulations and ran a program that produced similar compliance emission results. The issue involves the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), which prohibits anyone from working around “technological protection measures” that limit access to copyrighted works.

VW’s competitors were spending more money on systems to comply with the law and help the environment. “My hope is the agency will send a strong message to the rest of the industry,” Oge said. “You want to make it clear that this isn’t acceptable.” The closest parallel to the Volkswagen case was a group of truck makers who used devices to suppress diesel-pollution controls to improve fuel economy, Oge said. The Library of Congress, which oversees copyrights, can issue exemptions to those prohibitions that would make it legal, for example, for researchers to examine the code to uncover security vulnerabilities.

The software produced by Volkswagen is a ‘defeat device,’ as defined by the Clean Air Act.” “Exposure to ozone and particulate matter have also been associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects. Children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing respiratory disease are particularly at risk for health effects of these pollutants,” EPA said. “Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” said the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Cynthia Giles on Friday. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. Having access to car controls would allow for “good-faith testing, identifying, disclosing, and fixing of malfunctions, security flaws, or vulnerabilities,” they argued, according to comments they submitted to the Federal Register. Various parties submitted three classes of proposed exemptions that would have potentially assisted in uncovering this type of software—the proposals have been categorized by the Copyright Office as Class 21, Class 22, and Class 25. Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an evrionmental campaign group, said: “The charges here are truly appalling: that Volkswagen knowingly installed software that produced much higher smog-forming emissions from diesel vehicles in the real world than in pre-sale tests.” Mr O’Donnell accused VW of “cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public.” He said the charges undercut industry rhetoric about “clean diesel” cars.

Affected models include: Jetta (model years 2009-15); Beetle (model years 2009-15); Audi A3 (model years 2009-15); Golf (model years 2009-15); Passat (model years 2014-15). The Volkswagens likely perform better with the emissions controls defeated than they do with them on, said Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for the Cars.com automotive shopping and research site. Otherwise, he said, there would be no reason to have a setting that turns on the controls for tests and turns them off for regular driving. “Obviously it’s changing the way the engine operates somehow that may not be pleasing to consumers,” he said. “It would follow that it would put it into a very different feel in terms of operation of the vehicle.” Lawyers familiar with automotive law say the company could face criminal exposure if prosecutors agree with the EPA’s assertion about the defeat device.

Of course, examining software in this way can potentially uncover other things a car maker wouldn’t want anyone to see, such as code designed to circumvent emissions testing. Someone at VW had to decide that cheating the system was going to be a better use of time, money and resources than meeting the regulatory requirements, Tynan said. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an advocacy group that represents most of the world’s major automakers, including Volkswagen, opposed the DMCA exemption (.pdf), arguing it would create or exacerbate “serious threats to safety and security.” The EPA, surprisingly, also argued against the research exemptions, saying it was concerned drivers might hack their own cars to improve performance in ways that would violate federal controls.

And legalizing public access to the software used in the 482,000 VW cars now being recalled could possibly have revealed the alleged “defeat device” code earlier. As noted on Twitter by Thomas Dullien, a prominent security researcher and reverse engineer who goes by the handle Halvar Flake: “The VW case is an example why we need more liberal reverse engineering regulation. In a world controlled by code, RE creates transparency.” “It’s possible” a researcher with legal access to Volkswagen’s software could have discovered the code that changed how the cars behave in testing, says Matt Blaze, a professor in computer information science at the University of Pennsylvania. A recall is really the only way to do that.” Volkswagen was deliberately creating more pollution for the people they were trying to sell clean diesels to, said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a Washington-based environmental group. “This is one of the companies that’s been trying to get Americans to buy diesels,” Becker said. “They’ve banked their future in a significant way on diesel. Third party reverse engineering is a powerful tool, says Blaze, and could have turned up the “defeat device,” even if whoever found it didn’t know what they were looking at, or that it was deliberate.

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