EPA message to automakers: You're on notice

After Volkswagen's Cheating, Agency Plans To Increase Oversight Of Entire Industry

With top administrator Gina McCarthy speaking about the "moral obligation for climate action" on Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would ramp up its oversight of the auto industry in the wake of Volkswagen's emissions cheating. In a letter sent to manufacturers Friday, the agency said it would begin examining cars to see whether they contained defeat devices "in addition to the standard emissions test cycles."

"We are putting vehicle manufacturers on notice."

Exactly how the agency plans to test for these devices – which are not devices per se, but algorithms contained in millions of lines of software code that govern vehicle functions – remains unclear.

Christopher Grundler, the director of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality, divulged few details in how the agency would uncover so-called defeat devices used by cheaters. "Not today – or actually ever – I'm not going to be describing what new ways we'll be using to detect these defeat devices." Later, he said engineers will have to "come up with some clever ways to do this."

The only insight he offered was that the EPA, California Air Resources Board, and Environment Canada would partner on testing more cars for emissions and anomalies. Grundler also said the EPA would diversify its testing fleet. In addition to relying on vehicles provided by manufacturers, the federal agency will now also borrow cars from "private citizens" and utilize rental cars for tests. "We are putting vehicle manufacturers on notice," he said.

Joint investigations between EPA and CARB have "been very successful in protecting human health and the environment," said Janet McCabe, the agency's acting administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation. "But we also know, and the Volkswagen violations before us now make it clear, we need to adapt and step up our oversight."

Carmaker Cheating On Emissions Almost As Old As Pollution Tests

That may include an increase in on-road testing in addition to the five emissions tests now more relied upon. The EPA owns and maintains 23 portable emissions-monitoring systems like the one used by West Virginia University researchers who first detected elevated levels of nitrogen oxide emissions from two Volkswagen diesel vehicles. Right now, they're almost exclusively deployed to monitor emission from heavy-duty vehicles, whose NOx emissions "dwarf" the amount produced by light-duty vehicles, which produce less than 2 percent of the total, according to the agency's figures. The EPA says it has historically seen defeat devices on heavy-duty vehicles, so it has made sense to focus those portable machines on heavy-duty deployment.

"The Volkswagen violations before us now make it clear, we need to adapt and step up our oversight."

At the same time, the role those portable machines might play in catching future cheaters remains unclear. The PEMS detect emissions levels. They're not cheating detectors. Though Grundler noted the EPA has the same kind of equipment researchers at West Virginia University used to detect anomalous emissions from Volkswagens, those researchers themselves have emphasized they didn't single out Volkswagen for cheating. They merely recorded elevated levels of NOx emissions from a Jetta and Passat, and forwarded those results to the California Air Resources Board.

Asked about the sophistication of Volkswagen's cheating scheme, Grundler said the EPA had the equipment, staff and expertise to maintain a rigorous emissions testing system. But he did not say whether the agency had adequate staffing and expertise to analyze electronic control units for algorithms embedded in code. An EPA spokesperson has not yet returned a question seeking to clarify that portion of Grundler's remarks.

The EPA officials confirmed Volkswagen still does not yet have the certificate of conformity necessary to sell its model year 2016 four-cylinder diesels in the US market.

Meanwhle Friday, with Volkswagen's cheating on 482,000 cars in the American market thrusting her agency into the spotlight, McCarthy spent the morning consulting with an unlikely source. She sought out a priest. The EPA administrator visited Notre Dame to discuss the "moral obligation for climate action" with Father John Jenkins, the university's president.

McCarthy was scheduled to address the need "for action on behalf of those who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change and the steps the US is taking to meet that challenge." In particular, she intended to speak on sparking innovations in a clean-energy economy.

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