U.S. EPA Toughens Emissions Oversight After VW Cheating

The Long Road Ahead for Volkswagen
  • On-road testing may be added to the lab-based pollution tests
  • Volkswagen admitted to skirting emissions tests with software

Regulators will add more spot-checks to cars already on the road as part of a toughening of U.S. environmental oversight following Volkswagen AG’s admission that it fitted as many as 11 million diesel cars worldwide with software that rigged pollution tests.

“We are upping our game,” said Christopher Grundler, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. 

The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of Volkswagen, and the company said it’s cooperating with regulators. The admission has marred the reputation of the world’s largest automaker and sent its shares to the lowest levels in years. Volkswagen’s board is expected to name a successor Friday to former Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn, who resigned this week.

The EPA is sending a letter Friday to automakers informing them that emissions monitoring is being enhanced. Grundler wouldn’t say what changes the agency will make to audit the lab results carmakers submit to regulators.

“They don’t need to know,” Grundler, speaking to reporters on a conference call, said of the automakers. “They only need to know that we will be keeping their cars a little bit longer, and we’re going to be driving them more.”

Grundler earlier told the Associated Press that the agency may add additional on-road testing. It already has on-road testing ability but it’s been used in recent years to check carmaker gas mileage estimates and diesel trucks, two situations in which they had uncovered emissions cheating in the past.

Spot Checks

The agency will increase borrowing cars from vehicle owners for surprise spot checks, making sure the results align with data automakers submit on their EPA applications, Grundler said. The agency can also take cars directly off assembly lines for testing, he said.

The EPA’s ultimate power is to deny car companies a certificate required to sell their vehicles, Grundler said. Neither the EPA nor the California Air Resources Board -- which enforces separate state pollution rules -- will allow cars on the market if there’s any doubt they meet the legal requirements, he said.

“If EPA believes that vehicles are not compliant, we do not certify them, and they cannot be sold,” Grundler said.

The scandal now engulfing VW, which has admitted to outfitting cars with software designed to give false readings on emission tests, is unique both for the number of vehicles involved, and the digital complexity. But it’s not the first emissions-cheating case, even for the Wolfsburg, Germany-based company.

Past Cheating

In 1973, the EPA accused the automaker of installing defeat devices in cars it wanted to sell in the 1974 model year. VW then admitted it had sold 1973 model year cars with the devices, which consisted of temperature-sensing switches that cut out pollution controls at low temperatures.

General Motors Co. agreed in 1995 to pay $45 million after being accused of circumventing pollution controls on 470,000 Cadillac luxury sedans. The cars’ 4.9-liter V-8 engines were tuned to turn off pollution controls when the air conditioning ran, the EPA said at the time.

The current VW case resembles a 1998 case involving seven manufacturers of heavy-duty truck engines: Caterpillar Inc., Cummins Inc., Detroit Diesel Corp., Mack Trucks Inc., Navistar International Transportation Corp., Renault Vehicules Industriels, S.A. and Volvo Truck Corp.

The companies agreed to spend more than $1 billion, including $83.4 million in penalties, to settle the case -- the biggest civil fine to that point for violating an environmental law.

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