Open Road

Volkswagen's emissions fraud calls for manufacturer accountability

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, and at the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. This was the beginning of required emissions standards, although the standards were much more lenient in 1970 than they are today.

By now, you've probably heard that Volkswagen has pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy for manipulating the equipment that controls their cars' emissions. If you haven't heard, in short, VW admitted to programming the turbocharged direct injection diesel engines of 11 million cars to only activate certain emissions controls during lab testing.

This means 11 million cars have been producing 40x the legally established limit for emissions for quite a number of years. Both VW and Audi offices were raided in an attempt to discover who is responsible for the fraud.

And while this may be the first emissions scandal on a large scale, emissions fraud isn't new, and VW isn't the only manufacturer under scrutiny for fraudulent emissions controls. A study by the ICCT and ADAC discovered variations in emissions from Volvo, Renault, Jeep, Hyundai, Citroën, and even Fiat. And just like a domino effect, Renault is now under investigation by French authorities for allegedly cheating on their emissions for the last 25 years.

Why are manufacturers cheating on emissions?
Why would anyone want to cheat the system like this? What difference does it make to prevent emissions controls from operating according to EPA standards? Well, it all boils down to what the car is capable of when the emissions standards aren't applied. In short, performance and better fuel economy. And because that's what people want, it seems like some manufacturers are willing to do anything to get those sales.

Okay, that makes sense. But how have these manufacturers gotten away with this for so long, undetected? To answer this question, let's look at what the emissions control system actually is starting with the software program.

On-Board Diagnostic systems (OBD)
In order to meet the EPA's emissions standards, in the 1970s, car manufacturers started using electronically controlled systems in order to automatically adjust the functions of the engine. These systems are comprised of sensors that diagnose and adjust engine performance as necessary to alter the output of emissions, among other things.

In 1988, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) created standardized on-board equipment, along with recommended emissions standards that were eventually adopted by the EPA, and got all the car manufacturers to use this equipment. These standards are referred to as OBD-II, and as of January 1, 1996, all cars are equipped with this system.

Software controls the majority of a car's functions
Your car is controlled by software in more ways than you may realize. The following can be controlled by sensors and switches wired to detect certain variables that determine how the function operates:
  • Heated seats
  • Engine or transmission control
  • Rolling up your windows
  • Unlocking and locking your doors
Software makes cheating easy
Because of the nature of software, it's easy to program it to cheat. This goes for any device powered by a computer program, not just cars. And manufacturers aren't the only ones cheating.

To exemplify the point that software is far too easy to manipulate, thieves are stealing BMWs by breaking in, accessing the OBD reader port located inside the car, and using a simple OBD reader (like CarMD) to extract your specific key's code. Then, they program a blank key with your code, then it's bye-bye Bimmer.

A call for full accountability and disclosure
Technology is wonderful, but at some point, there has to be some accountability and transparency for what it's being used for. And while the general population is looking to car manufacturers to come clean, even when they plead guilty, it doesn't undo the damage already done.

The truth is disappointing, and it really makes you wonder what you can do to make a difference; the problem can seem overwhelming. But while these manufacturers duke it out in court, you can make small changes in your life. For example, consider joining a journey club to get some exercise, see the world, and take a break from your car (just for a while).

The truth is, we don't know how many manufacturers have been cheating the system, nor for how long. If Renault's alleged violations go back 25 years, that means we've been putting way more pollution into the atmosphere than we thought for an extended period of time.

And while we may not have all the answers right now, the manufacturers need to be held to account for their deception. And although it's unlikely they'll be trusted in the future, perhaps this incident will pave the way for a new and overdue model of transparency in the motor vehicle industry.

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