VW caught cheating on air-pollution tests

19 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

EPA accuses Volkswagen of cheating Clean Air Act, orders recall.

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.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. The violations carry potential fines of more than $35,000 per vehicle, which means the German automaker is on the hook for as much as $18 billion, plus the cost of retrofitting nearly 500,000 recalled vehicles.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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 violations do not present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive and sell while Volkswagen comes up with a plan to recall and repair them, the EPA said. Nitrogen oxide is a major component of smog, or ground-level ozone pollution and particulate matter, which has been linked to asthma attacks and serious respiratory illnesses. 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. 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. 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. The affected diesel models include: Jetta (model years 2009-15), Beetle (model years 2009-15), Audi A3 (model years 2009-15), Golf (model years 2009-15), and Passat (model years 2012-15). 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. 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.

It could take up to a year for VW to develop a recall plan, regulators said, and in the meantime owners are told to keep driving as usual — and keep checking the mail for a notice from VW. 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.” 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. 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. 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.

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