Volkswagen ordered to recall nearly 500,000 vehicles for manipulating software to circumvent emissions inspections

Volkswagen has been manufacturing cars that only fully deploy their emissions control systems when they are undergoing fuel emissions inspection, according to the Obama administration.

As these cars violate EPA fuel emissions standards, and pollute at far higher rates than claimed by the manufacturer, the administration has ordered a recall that will affect approximately half a million cars.

From the New York Times:

Volkswagen Golf, via Wikimedia Commons

Volkswagen Golf, via Wikimedia Commons

The Environmental Protection Agency issued the company a notice of violation and accused the company of breaking the law by installing software known as a “defeat device” in 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from model years 2009-15. The device is programmed to detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and to only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. Those controls are turned off during normal driving situations, when the vehicles pollute far more heavily than reported by the manufacturer, the E.P.A. said.

No word yet on how, exactly, Volkswagen’s cheating was detected, as it was designed to circumvent the very inspection process that’s supposed to enforce the standards it wanted to avoid.

As big of a deal as Volkswagen’s cheating is, it’s arguably a bigger deal that the administration caught them and issued a recall. Companies are going to try and circumvent regulations, which means those regulations only matter if the government actively follows up to make sure that the private sector isn’t doing things that put us at risk. Like putting more nitrogen oxide in the air than is anywhere near safe.

Or hawking cancer and diabetes cures that no medical agency has endorsed.

Or leveraging homeowner debt to systemically unsustainable levels.

Because every time the Heritage Foundation says that regulations stifle economic growth, a product gets recalled. And every time that a car company or power plant fights to put more not-air into the air, a kid gets an asthma attack.

The private sector can’t and won’t self-regulate this stuff away; only the government will.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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13 Responses to “Volkswagen ordered to recall nearly 500,000 vehicles for manipulating software to circumvent emissions inspections”

  1. gratuitous says:

    I wonder if Volkswagen will use the time-honored corporate dodge of “Now how in the heck did that happen?” If they do, look for Volkswagen to blame one of two people: Someone long since dead or retired and beyond their reach; or some low-level engineer who was “just fooling around with an idea” that somehow made it into the production line. For seven years.

    One quibble, though: The recall wasn’t ordered by the Obama administration. Like practically every other recall, this one is strictly voluntary, instituted by Volkswagen to avoid about thirty skabillion product liability lawsuits that will be coming down the pike (or in this case, the autobahn).

  2. Ewa Saunders says:

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  3. ComradeRutherford says:

    OK, that makes sense, then. The car computer has code that is intended to detect when it’s being queried by the diagnostic computer. As you pointed out…

    It’s the same thing that the electronic voting machines do, they work normally every day of the week, except for election day, when they switch to a different set of code to affect the election outcome. That way they audit perfectly when tested by the secretary of state’s office, and yet make sure the chose Republican wins.

  4. BeccaM says:

    They don’t just put a sensor up the tailpipe. They’ll also hook into the engine diagnostic computers to get data that way and to simulate a number of driving conditions. (Old-old school, they would put cars on rollers and run them up to speed that way…but now it’s all done electronically.)

    It wouldn’t be hard to program the car to detect when an emissions test was being run and to have it be ‘on its best behavior’ so to speak for the duration.

  5. Sharon Patterson says:

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  6. ComradeRutherford says:

    “The device is programmed to detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing”

    How is that possible? I certainly don’t know how they do it in Cali, but in NYC, they simply insert a sensor up the tailpipe. How does a car know that is happening?

  7. GarySFBCN says:

    Within the realm of automobile recalls this is the worst as it was intentional. As someone who has owned VWs for 40 years, I will never buy one of their cars again (and I’m will be buying something next year).

    There are a few articles floating around that claim that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act may have delayed this discovery. More about that here:

    http://www.wired.com/2015/09/epa-opposes-rules-couldve-exposed-vws-cheating/

    VW needs to be punished. NO2 is a health hazard: “Also, studies show a connection between breathing elevated short-term NO2 concentrations, and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially asthma.

    NO2 concentrations in vehicles and near roadways are appreciably higher than those measured at monitors in the current network. In fact, in-vehicle concentrations can be 2-3 times higher than measured at nearby area-wide monitors. Near-roadway (within about 50 meters) concentrations of NO2 have been measured to be approximately 30 to 100% higher than concentrations away from roadways.

    Individuals who spend time on or near major roadways can experience short-term NO2 exposures considerably higher than measured by the current network. Approximately 16% of U.S housing units are located within 300 ft of a major highway, railroad, or airport (approximately 48 million people). This population likely includes a higher proportion of non-white and economically-disadvantaged people.”

    http://www3.epa.gov/airquality/nitrogenoxides/health.html

    This is a class-action suit waiting to happen. I’ve already posted on the California Department of Public Health FB page and I will be contacting some people I know in ‘activist’ public health departments in areas with major freeways.

    This is despicable.

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  9. BeccaM says:

    Wow… that is some seriously major and systematic fraud.

    Interesting. It says at the NYT article that the illegal ’emissions defeat’ mechanism was specific to their diesel engine cars, and intended to conceal regulation-breaking emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx, a mix of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide), one of the main contributors to smog. Which in a way doesn’t surprise me: Car manufacturers have NEVER managed to work out all the kinks in small diesel engines.

    They run hotter and at higher pressures, which do two things: Produce somewhat less CO2 than gasoline engines…but significantly more NOx. As in up to 20 times as much. And since there’s lots of unburned oxygen in diesel exhaust, they can’t use the gas engine’s standard catalytic converter system to remove NO2. I guess for the last few years now they’re doing some kind of ammonia/urea spraying…which surely must smell horrible.

  10. Naja pallida says:

    To be fair, mechanics have been doing this sort of thing ever since emissions testing was implemented. Tune the carbs, or adjust the timing, even programmable ECUs in later models, to lean out the fuel mixture to make it burn cleaner – at the expense of engine performance – to temporarily pass the testing, and then reset it once you’ve passed. Back when catalytic converters were first mandated many tuners worked very hard to find ways to bypass them for normal driving, but left them on and easily hooked back into the exhaust system for inspection purposes. Nowadays engines are computer controlled and full of sensors and stuff to make this sort of tuning more complex, but it’s still done with regularity. VW just made it a factory option, instead of aftermarket. :)

  11. Hue-Man says:

    Whistle-blower? Google Translate says “Enthüller”.

    We really have no idea what’s going on under the hood. We learned that our “connected” cars can be hacked and run over a cliff without our being able to prevent it. VW is cheating to emit more pollution without detection. What else we haven’t heard about?

  12. Indigo says:

    Das Auto? German engineering? How dare anyone question German Engineering!?! Frau Merkel will be very upset at the suggestion that something is wrong. Do you not respect Austerity?

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