I haven’t run across any U.S. reporting on this yet — which is odd, considering its scope — but the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is all over it, and understandably so. Volkswagen, which by any standard has to be considered the flagship German auto manufacturer, has been caught not just fiddling its U.S. emissions testing, but outright gun-decking it. And that’s not all, it seems.
For those of us who are not initiates into the dark secrets of the EPA and its functioning, automobile manufacturers in the U.S. are required to “self-certify” their products’ compliance with applicable environmental and other regulation. In other words, much like our tax system, in which the taxpayer completes his own return according to the statutes and regulations prescribing how it is to be done, and desperately hopes he doesn’t “win” (which is to say, “lose”) the audit lottery, the automobile manufacturers undertake to test their products to EPA-defined protocols and report the results truthfully.
In addition, before they’re ever allowed to put a specific model car on the market, they have to tell the regulators (not sure whether the NHTSA or the EPA, or both) exactly what materials they propose to use in that model.
Well, to put it mildly, VW has been caught, and has now admitted to, lying through its teeth on both scores. It designed into the on-board computer which controls the engine and emission-control systems a sub-program to sense when the vehicle is on a test rack versus when it’s actually being driven, and so to alter the tuning and performance characteristics that it passes the EPA emissions requirements, when in fact it doesn’t as you drive it down the street. How it worked was simple; under normal operating conditions certain portions of the emissions controls were simply shut off; on the test rack they operated. [Aside: The FAZ article does go out of its way to point out that U.S. emission standards are far more restrictive than European; in Europe a car may put out 80 mg of nasty per kilometer, the EPA only permits 70 mg per mile (which is 1.609 km). Multiply the European standard by 1.609 to convert to miles and you get 128.72 mg, an almost 84% increase.] The models in question are principally the Jetta, the Beetle, and the Audi A3, each as configured with the “clean diesel” powerplant. In addition, it seems that VW did not build its cars in conformity with the materials lists provided to the government in connection with the applications for approval for sale.
They were originally caught back in 2014 by the California emissions-control weenies, which, working with the University of West Virginia (you can almost sense the revulsion the Californians had to feel even to be talking with someone in — ick!! — West Virginia, poor dears), figured out how to get genuine data from actual cars. The FAZ article speaks of the discovery occurring “in the course of regular testing” of, “among others, also models by VW.” The California regulators notified VW as well as the EPA. VW instituted its own examination to replicate the California findings (isn’t that precious; they wanted to see why their fraud had failed). California warned them that if things didn’t shape up pronto, it would be required to issue a massive recall of the affected vehicles. This was in December, 2014.
VW in fact instituted that recall “voluntarily,” and informed everyone concerned that everything was now hunky-dorey. So, having given the assurances, beginning in May, 2015, VW’s vehicles were then re-tested, including protocols “specially designed” for this particular testing. Geez, guys; couldn’t you have seen this coming? Get caught lying and you think that no one’s going to go the extra mile to make sure you’re not lying any more?
Sure enough, at the beginning of this month VW formally admitted to all concerned that nothing had changed and they still were running the offending control systems.
So now, in addition to actually having to recall the vehicles, they’re also looking at a fine in the $18 billion range. That’s $18 billion. Compare that with the fines imposed on the financial services industry titans whose monkey-shines contributed to tanking the U.S. economy for the better part of eight years (hint: the hurt is going to be much worse for VW). In beginning trading Monday in Frankfurt VW’s shares were down by as much as 23%; as of right now (roughly 10:30 Central) they’re down just over 19%.
But why the post title? Is it really so unlikely that VW is alone in falsifying its test data? I mean, this is just high-school-level chicanery. How likely is it that you’re going to get by with a system that shuts off entire portions of your emission-control systems? And if VW isn’t alone? If it’s not alone, where are the massive fines for the other manufacturers?
I know this is pretty tin-foil-hat of me, but remember we now operate in a politico-economic system in which federal regulators are fully weaponized against political opponents. Remember the folks who started True the Vote, whose mission is nothing more subversive than ensuring that only actual living qualified voters are permitted to vote, and then only once per election? That married couple not only got themselves and their business audited by the IRS, but also received multiple extensive visitations from the ATF and OSHA. All right out of the blue, you see. VW is a non-unionized competitor of the UAW’s hostages, also known as the Big Three. It doesn’t matter that VW bent over backward to throw the election to the UAW when it tried to organize that plant down in Chattanooga. In point of fact it’s still a non-union shop in a state which isn’t going to vote Democrat any time in the foreseeable future. VW also a pretty minor player in the market, and it’s market share is such that its damage/destruction won’t really hurt many unionized/blue-state parts suppliers. And VW is German, ergo European, and anything which harms it is going to have fall-out for Angela Merkel, who — in contrast to unrepentant tax cheat Al Sharpton — doesn’t get all that many invitations to the White House.
Somewhat mitigating my concerns on this score is the fact that it was California, not the feds, who first caught VW at it, and the fleeting reference to the snare’s having been made in the course of regular testing of multiple vehicles. If true, commendable. But what if not true? Am I supposed to accept at face value the non-coordination of effort between a weaponized EPA and the most famously intrusive state regulator out there? I wish I could dismiss such thoughts as being so far beyond the pale as to be facially not credible.
But after almost seven years of hopenchange those thoughts are not only not non-believable, they’re almost the presumptive default. Because “fundamental transformation.”
[Update: 21 Sep 15, 1626 Central]: Looks like I’m not the only one asking who else might have his hand in the emissions jar. Read carefully, though, the post’s take on the potential defense available to VW: The emission control system must produce the values “at the time of testing.” In yet another article, the FAZ shares with us that apparently the relevant emissions standard which VW rigged its testing to comply with is something called “SULEV-II,” which only applies if the manufacturer advertises that it does. And of course VW did. “SULEV” means “super-ultra low-emission vehicle,” and there’s a list (no idea of whether correct or current) on Wikipedia of vehicles which deliver those emissions. Here’s the EPA’s official chart showing the emissions standards for each category (with a bonus of California’s Air Resources Board’s corresponding requirements); SULEV-II is the fourth one down the chart.