Das Auto & Das EPA:  What Did They Know, When Did They Know It?

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On October 8, the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on “Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheating Allegations: Initial Questions”.  During the marathon session, nearly every member of the full committee stopped by for an obligatory finger wagging over the emissions scandal at the world’s largest automaker, and to ask EPA officials what steps they were taking to fix the problem and punish VW.  While VW had few answers to satisfy the committee, EPA did concede that real-world emissions testing was needed. The VW scandal is opening the door to a much needed regulatory change for vehicles and fuels – “real-world” testing.

In a particularly impassioned moment, Rep. Schakowsky (D-IL) stated to witness Michael Horn, President and CEO of VW North America, “I don’t buy it.  The American people, the EPA, and their counterparts have been defrauded.  The company’s word isn’t worth a dime.  All I want to hear today is exactly how VW will fix this issue.”

Her feelings summed up the mood in the room, as lawmakers picked apart the timeline of discovery at the automaker, the extent of the fraud, how many cars are affected in the United States, and what, exactly, VW and EPA plan to do to fix the issue.

While hazy on the details of who is involved and how high the deception goes, Horn was apologetic and at times, as dismayed by the situation as lawmakers. According to his testimony, no employees of VW North America knew about the fraud until the scandal broke in early September.  Lawmakers remained unconvinced both on the scope of the fraud and the timeframe.

During Horn’s testimony, lawmakers were particularly concerned with VW dealerships and their customers.  The vehicles affected by the scandal include the VW Passat, Beetle, Golf, Jetta, and Audi A3. There are approximately 650 VW and 350 Audi dealerships in the United States, according to lawmakers, about 25 percent of U.S. dealers’ sales involve the affected vehicles.

Questions included, what would dealers do with new VW diesel cars that they are no longer allowed to sell?  What relief will VW provide to dealers, who will bear the brunt of customer frustration, potential recalls and repairs?  Horn had few answers that satisfied the committee.

When asked pointedly why VW ultimately chose install default devices on approximately 500,000 VW cars in the U.S., (and 11 million globally), Horn replied, “pressure in the system to get resolutions [for emissions standards], and also cost pressure.”

Lawmakers were decidedly kinder to EPA top officials Chris Grundler, Director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and Phillip Brooks, Director of Air Enforcement Division. While there was some questioning as to why researchers at the University of West Virginia, and not EPA, had first discovered the fraud, they quickly got down to brass tacks.

Questions to EPA from lawmakers ranged from how EPA would resolve the issue with existing vehicles in the U.S.; how consumers, dealers, and individual states would be affected; and how they would make sure to detect emissions scams in the future.

There weren’t a lot of clear answers as to how this will shake out for individual consumers, given the ongoing nature of the investigation both at EPA, and at VW’s German headquarters. Many questions remained unanswered. Will VW be forced to buy-back vehicles?  Will the cars fail state-level emissions inspections? Will a recall be voluntary or mandatory? How, exactly will the cars be repaired? Will the repairs work? Are the cars legal to drive?  EPA continuously pointed to the fact that the investigation is ongoing.

Near the end of the hearing – EPA did concede on one point – their lack of real-world emissions testing. Going forward, Grundler stated that EPA would step up real-world testing in diesel vehicles, and even left the door open for more testing in the light duty fleet.  When asked by Rep. DeGette (D-CO), “what is the status of the testing?”  Grundler commented that EPA plans “to test all light-duty vehicles … We’re starting with diesels.  Hopefully, Rep. DeGette will follow up on her question to push for real world testing for gasoline vehicles and their fuels – key to knowing all the facts.

During the hearing, news broke that both the VW headquarters and private homes of VW executives were swept in an investigative raid by German officials.

For more information see:

Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheating Allegations: Initial Questions, House Energy & Commerce Committee