Out here in the everyday world it looks simple: the government says you have to achieve a certain score on your driver's license test, for example, and if you cheat on the test to get the desired score and the government finds out, it takes away your driver's license. In the legal world, however, there are loopholes. This could be an absence of regulations or bit of confusion between the 'letter of the law' versus the 'spirit of the law.' That's how Volkswagen has carried on since October questioning whether the diesel emissions software that it used to pass federal emissions tests is actually a "defeat device." German regulators have now officially decided that the software is, indeed, a method of illegal cheating.

An October letter from Volkswagen UK managing director Paul Willis in response to the UK Parliament's questions on the matter said in part that the company was still trying to assess whether the software constituted a defeat device. The letter also said, "I should also explain that the legal limits on NOx apply only during testing.... There is no legal limit for NOx when vehicles on are on the road." The NEDC regulatory body's wording has also been questioned, since it states only that, "[T]he settings of the engine and of the vehicle's controls shall be those prescribed by the manufacturer." And then there's the fact that a vehicle approved in any EU country is approved for sale in all EU countries, leading to allegations that certain member states want to "make it the most easy for the car manufacturers to pass the test."

European regulations officially outlaw defeat devices, but the regulations perhaps provide enough wiggle room for savvy legal teams to question what constitutes a defeat device. On top of that, only a few EU nations have laws on the books that lay out penalties for emissions cheating. In the absence of such rules in most EU countries, observers aren't sure what kinds of levies VW will have to face; as it is, The New York Times says the German ruling might have an impact on the civil cases brought against VW.

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