EPA says VW intentionally violates clean air standards

19 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

EPA says VW intentionally violates clean air standards.

Volkswagen AG has been caught installing cheating software on nearly half a million diesel vehicles. Volkswagen called them “clean diesels,” branding them as the fun-to-drive alternatives to hybrids as it dominated the U.S. market for the engine technology.

In ads, Volkswagen touted its popular Jetta and Beetle diesels as paragons of clean-fuel technology: Buyers were promised a car that was “clean, fuel efficient, and powerful,” according to one 2013 testimonial.The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday ordered Volkswagen to fix nearly 500,000 VW and Audi diesel cars that the agency said are intentionally violating clean air laws by using software that evades EPA emissions standards. 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. Turns out the increasingly eco-conscious buyers of the sporty German cars have been unwittingly pumping smog into the air — because of software VW installed to cheat on U.S. emissions tests. 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. The controls are turned off during normal driving situations, the EPA said. “EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. 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.

An EPA statement hinted of a future recall, saying it was “incumbent on Volkswagen to initiate the process” to fix the affected cars’ emissions systems. The software sensed when the vehicle was being tested for compliance with the regulations and ran a program that produced similar compliance emission results.

Additionally it could face a fine of about $18 billion, or $37,500 per car, federal environmental officials said. “It’s pretty ugly,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer said. “Volkswagen has far outstripped everyone else in selling diesel cars. However, the program was automatically deactivated in normal driving mode. “This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard.

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. This challenges everything they’ve been saying about those vehicles.” “It’s just a blatant disregard and intentional manipulation of the system,” said Priya Shah, a San Francisco owner of a 2012 VW diesel Jetta station wagon. “Not only lying to the government, but also lying to your consumer. 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. 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. People buy diesel cars from VW because they feel they are clean diesel cars.” Justin Balthrop, of Topanga, has driven four VWs over many years and just bought a 2015 Golf TDI because of its mix of performance and fuel efficiency.

Affected diesel models include the Volkswagen Jetta (model years 2009-15), Volkswagen Beetle (model years 2009-15), Audi A3 (model years 2009-15), Volkswagen Golf (model years 2009-15) and Volkswagen Passat (model years 2014-15). In December of 2014, a group of proponents suggested to do exactly this by seeking to add computer programs used in cars, trucks, and agricultural machinery to the list of DMCA exemptions. 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. 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. 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.

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. The results were shared with EPA and discussed in conversations with company officials, who acknowledged that a software change accounted for the varying emissions rates.

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.” Investigators later found the software in diesel versions of Golfs, Jettas and Beetles and Audi A3s beginning with the model year 2009, and in Volkswagen Passats beginning with 2014 models, according to an agency fact sheet. In all likelihood, though, the final penalties will be less than that amount. “While the diesel vehicles do not meet air pollution standards, they continue to be safe and legal to drive,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. “We will hold VW responsible for recalling the affected vehicles…at no cost to consumers.” “Our goal now is to ensure that the affected cars are brought into compliance,” said Richard Corey, executive officer of California’s Air Resources Board.

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. In 1998, the EPA reached a $1 billion settlement with diesel-engine companies such as Caterpiller, Renault and Volvo for installing equipment that defeated emission controls. The German automaker last year sold 78,847 diesel passenger vehicles in the U.S., well ahead of its nearest competitor, according to online auto sales company TrueCar.

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. Air board investigators started testing the vehicles on a special dynamometer — a kind of treadmill for vehicle testing — and on the open road using portable equipment.

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. Officials did not specify VW’s motivation for cheating, but some benefits might be to increase real-world performance or fuel economy, Sullivan said.

In addition to fines, VW will likely face consumer lawsuits on two fronts, said Steve Berman, a class action attorney in Seattle who has successfully brought such cases against Toyota, Hyundai among others. Berman said he is already preparing a lawsuit on behalf of a Marin County, Calif. owner who bought a VW because it was marketed as a clean car and “now they find out it was polluting the environment at 40 times standards.” VW also will face what is known as a “diminished value” lawsuit because the vehicles are likely to lose a portion of their resale value because of the problem, he said. “Tightening government standards are making cars cleaner, and it is disturbing to learn that VW is flouting those standards,” Tonachel said. “The EPA action is important to protecting public health.” Consumers should not read VW’s action as an indictment of all diesel cars, said Don Anair, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There has been major progress in advancing emissions controls for diesels over the past 10 years,” Anair said. “That’s a fact. This is a problem with the manufacturer, not the technology.” VW will have to develop a fix to bring the cars into compliance with federal and state clean air, regulators said.

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