VW denies ‘forbidden’ software tinkering as EPA charges spread

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The scandal over Volkswagen AG’s use of software to circumvent federal air pollution standards in some of its diesel cars broadened yesterday to include some Porsche and Audi models, U.S. EPA said.

Continued testing after the first deceptions were announced in September revealed that an additional 10,000 Audi, Porsche and VW diesel-fueled vehicles have been sold that also contain “defeat devices” designed to evade air pollution tests, EPA officials said yesterday. An unknown number of new cars that are currently for sale also violate the Clean Air Act, they said (E&ENews PM, Nov. 2).

“Volkswagen has once again failed its obligation to comply with the law that protects clean air for all Americans,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.

But while Volkswagen officials admitted to the September violations, which encompassed nearly half a million diesel cars sold in the United States and 11 million worldwide since 2008, the company did not concede culpability for yesterday’s allegations.

“Volkswagen AG wishes to emphasize that no software has been installed in the 3-liter V6 diesel power units to alter emissions characteristics in a forbidden manner,” spokesman Hans-Gerd Bode said in a statement. “Volkswagen will cooperate fully with the EPA to clarify this matter in its entirety.”

In both instances, EPA accused VW of installing software designed to pass federal emissions tests but release higher-than-acceptable levels in everyday driving situations. The program allowed VW cars to activate emission controls during testing but to release during normal use up to 40 times the permitted amount of nitrogen oxides, or NOx — which help generate low-hanging ozone that blankets cities — and particulate matter, which causes breathing issues and is linked to millions of early deaths (ClimateWire, Sept. 21).

New charges involve larger diesels

The new notice of violation identifies the diesel versions of the 2014 Volkswagen Touareg, 2015 Porsche Cayenne and 2016 Audi A6 quattro, A7 quattro, A8, A8 L and Q5. The cars all have six-cylinder engines, while the models identified in the September notice — the VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat and Audi A3 — have four-cylinder engines.

If the latest allegations are true, it would mean that the scandal encompasses more than the handful of engineers whom Volkswagen Group of America President and CEO Michael Horn blamed at a House hearing last month (Greenwire, Oct. 8).

“It’s mind-boggling that they would resort to this,” said Carol Lee Rawn, director of the transportation program at Ceres, a nonprofit group that advocates for sustainable business practices. “It clearly looks like a lot of people in Volkswagen must have known about this.”

Members of the House panel that held last month’s hearing vowed to continue their investigation.

“The latest revelations raise the question, where does VW’s road of deceit end?” said Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), as well as Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). “The EPA expanding its investigation prompts questions regarding the prevalence of the emissions cheating and how it went undetected for so long. Our bipartisan investigation continues — it’s time for Volkswagen to fully come clean.”

Cars programmed to comply only when tested?

California air officials, who helped uncover the initial violations and have been conducting additional testing, ordered Volkswagen to respond to their letter within 72 hours to set up a meeting with relevant employees. “VW must ensure that appropriate Audi and Porsche AG management and engineering staff are made available for these discussions,” California Air Resources Board emissions compliance chief Annette Hebert wrote to Volkswagen and Porsche executives yesterday.

The new violations were found by using “unpredictable” testing procedures, officials said. The cars were programmed to emit low amounts of NOx during testing, and then revert to “normal” operations one second after the 23-minute testing procedure normally ends. The adjusted settings involve changes to injection timing, exhaust gas recirculation and fuel injection pressure.

“In sum, as soon as the vehicle senses that it is not being tested, it uses ‘normal mode,'” the notice says. “In ‘normal mode,’ tailpipe emissions of NOx are up to 9 times the applicable NOx standard levels,” depending on model type and driving conditions.

The latest alleged violations, if true, would also be less effective than the four-cylinder defeat devices. The software for the four-cylinder engines was able to reduce NOx by up to a factor of 40, while the six-cylinder engines were only able to cut emissions by a factor of 9. As well, one model — the 2014 Touareg — still failed its NOx test, despite the presence of a defeat device, California regulators said in their letter.

EPA still has not issued any recalls or fines, and said all of the cars are still legal to drive and resell. Officials declined to comment on their discussions with Volkswagen and said that testing is still ongoing.

“We’re already making changes and upping our game, as we say, on our testing program,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “We will continue to be unpredictable, using all the tools at our disposal.”