Volkswagen's Checks Aren't the End of Dieselgate

Get back on the bus.

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Checks for $5,100 to $10,000 written to Americans who bought Volkswagen diesel cars equipped to fool emissions tests may appease those owners, but they hardly constitute a victory for clean air. Rather than declare the matter closed, regulators in the U.S. and Europe need to redouble efforts to end all varieties of test-gaming in the auto industry.

Since VW’s “dieselgate” broke last September, Mitsubishi has admitted it cheated on fuel-efficiency tests, and Renault recalled 15,000 vehicles with faulty pollution-filtering systems. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Opel and Porsche have recalled hundreds of thousands of cars over other discrepancies. And independent studies of real-world driving, as opposed to laboratory testing, have found that brands including Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan and Volvo emit more greenhouse gases than advertised. 

These shenanigans have been going on for decades. In 1995, General Motors paid $45 million in fines after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accused it of tinkering with pollution controls on nearly half a million Cadillacs. In 1998, both Ford and Honda settled for millions after being accused of using devices to undermine emissions testing.

As shoe after shoe drops in the diesel scandal, it becomes clearer that regulators are ill-equipped to monitor the industry. Indeed, VW was initially busted by a private watchdog group, the International Council on Clean Transportation. The European Union has enacted new rules to toughen emissions testing and enforce limits on nitrogen oxides, a hazardous diesel pollutant, but these are riddled with loopholes and give automakers years to comply. The German transport ministry this month called for what it said were tougher EU testing rules, but those, too, are less than meets the eye. The mayors of 20 soot-choked European cities have lambasted the EU for its ineffectiveness.

There are plenty of problems on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, oversight of testing is left to individual nations, leading to longstanding complaints that governments favor their own domestic brands. In the case of Renault, the French government owns nearly 20 percent of the business.

Testing there and in the U.S. is done mostly by private firms hired by the car companies -- and using “golden cars,” with adjustments like low-tread tires and no back seats so they get better mileage.

All this needs to change. If government agencies aren’t capable of running their own tests, then they need to exercise better oversight of private labs. All cars tested should be plucked randomly off the lot.

QuickTake Cleaner Cars

In the U.S., where there are relatively few diesel vehicles -- in January, only 222 were sold nationwide -- nitrogen oxides are not as big a concern as carbon dioxide emissions. On average, vehicles in the U.S. give off 24 pounds of climate-warming gases for every gallon of fuel burned. So U.S. authorities need to broaden their scrutiny of fuel-efficiency testing. And as anyone with a daily commute can attest, the miles-per-gallon numbers written on showroom stickers are pure fantasy. Just this week, U.S. automakers urged the federal and California regulators to ease future mileage standards, admitting their failure to live up to an agreement reached in 2011.

Two big lessons of dieselgate are that the car companies will do anything they can to beat tests, and that lax rules play into their hands. Regulators need to clamp down or risk losing major battles against air pollution and global warming.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.