Emission testing. Dodgy for years.

It seems that the current VW scandle is nothing new. They and many others have been at it for years.
This long but interesting read from Ars is worth your time if you have deeper interest in the topic.


Here are some highlights if you are short of time.

Because defeat devices have such a complicated history, it’s helpful to take a look at what a defeat device is, how the EPA tests for them, and what’s happened when they’ve been found in the past, to get some context for Volkswagen’s most egregious breach of public trust.

I like this about Ars, they give a bit of history so that the current mess is better understood. This is some quality tech writing… Anyway, let’s move on.

The current primary test procedure for emissions is called FTP-75. The car’s engine is hooked up to a dynamometer and run for about 31 minutes, testing it from a cold start, in a stabilized phase, and then with a hot start. The car has to “travel” for 11.04 miles at an average speed of 21.2mph, with a maximum speed of 56.7mph.

Gary Bishop, a research associate at the University of Denver who has worked on building systems to remotely monitor vehicle emissions in the real world, told Ars that the EPA’s tests set the manufacturers up for success, even if it’s not entirely warranted. “If anyone (including car manufacturers) knows the test ahead of time, why would anyone ever expect you to flunk that test?”

“One thing most people are not aware of is that manufacturers will have specific drivers who drive certain models because they can legally drive the test and produce the lowest emissions for that model,” Bishop continued. “[It’s] not cheating but one [can] expect that vehicle to behave differently off the test with real drivers.”

So we have a really well defined test, we have a driver from the car company that drives the car for the test (in a shed, not on a public road). Its interesting to note that the test does not take the car to full highway speed.
As the guy points out, is it any wonder then that the car companies really have everything going for them to pass the test?

The games started almost as soon as the test was introduced.
Back then, the cars were fitted with ‘analog defeat devices’.

In a January 1974 Report to Congress (PDF), the EPA wrote that in the previous year it had opened an investigation concerning “the failure to report the existence of and the use of possible defeat devices by Volkswagen on a substantial number of 1973 model year vehicles”

Around the same time (1974), the EPA also reprimanded six manufacturers—GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors, Nissan, and Toyota—for installing devices which would “defeat the effectiveness of emission control systems under conditions not experienced during EPA’s certification testing.”

So to be clear, since the test is so well defined, the car companies can literally build their cars performance around the legal requirements of the test.

Between 1991 and 1995, GM sold approximately 470,000 Seville, DeVille, Eldorado, and Fleetwood model Cadillacs with 4.9L V8 engines that turned off the emissions control system when the driver turned on the air conditioner.

(The test, then and now, is done with no air-con.)

In 1998 the EPA reached a settlement with Ford over defeat devices found on 60,000 1997 Econoline vans. Ford was accused of equipping its electronic control module with instructions to increase fuel economy (and override the emissions control system) when the vans were driven at highway speeds.

The problem is not limited to cars either.

1998 was a good year for the EPA Enforcement Action writer. In October of that year, the EPA reached a settlement with seven of the largest heavy-duty diesel manufacturers in the US—Caterpillar, Cummins Engine Company, Detroit Diesel Corporation, Mack Trucks, Navistar International Transportation Corporation, Renault Vehicules Industriels, and Volvo Truck Corporation. The accusations were eerily familiar to those made by the EPA against Volkswagen today.

According to press releases from 1998, the truck makers all included defeat devices on their vehicles that controlled fuel injection timing, allowing the industrial engines to pass emissions tests in controlled settings but changing the fuel injection timing at higher speeds, to help trucks get better fuel economy. To achieve this fuel economy, however, the engines gave off up to three times as much nitrogen oxide (NOx) as they did at slower speeds.

So, long story long.
It’s been going on for years (and years), it is not unique to VW or cars.
The EPA is looking to change its test and make it more real world, but there is no action toward that for now.

I read one guy’s web blurb and it went along the lines of this… “mark this event in your history books, the VW / EPA mess will go down as THE event that triggered the rise of the electric car.”
Perhaps he’s right, given the pollution issues that are starting to show up in Europe where the diesel has been king (Paris has a system where odd / even number plate cars take turns at driving to reduce air pollution – electric is exempt), and the fact that most EU members are in the process of passing (or already have passed) similar emission laws as in California, the electric car is the one sure way to mitigate all this mess.

I have friends at church that own said models of VW’s, they are annoyed and disappointed, but feel powerless. They can not afford to change cars, and they like the one they have, but are upset that they pollute more than they should.
It is a mess and I don’t think the end is in sight just yet.