Most smart car features don’t trigger a recall of almost half a million cars and an apology from one of the world’s largest automakers. But last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had discovered a software algorithm designed to help Volkswagen cars cheat on official emissions testing.
The Volkswagen “defeat device” software could detect whenever a car was undergoing official emissions testing and activate emissions controls only during such testing, according to an EPA press release on 18 September. During normal driving operations, the inactivated emissions controls gave the Volkswagen cars better performance at the cost of emitting nitrogen oxides (NOx) at up to 40 times beyond the EPA’s emission standard.
“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” said Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, in a statement. “We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case.”
The emissions-cheating software was found in four-cylinder diesel passenger cars that include the Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3, Golf, and Passat. Discovery of the “defeat device” prompted the EPA to issue a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.
Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, described the “defeat device” as “illegal and a threat to public health.” The EPA worked with the California Air Resources Board to investigate the cars after first being alerted by researchers at West Virginia University, working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization.
The stricter emissions regulations that took effect in 2008 have prompted automakers besides Volkswagen to use complex emission-control systems to control nitrous oxide emissions, according to Green Car Reports. Part of those systems includes a separate tank of urea liquid that gets injected into the after-treatment system at certain times.
By comparison, Green Car Reports points out that Volkswagen’s four-cylinder TDI diesel engines were able to meet EPA standards without the urea injection system.
The Volkswagen emissions scandal could cost the automaker billions of dollars in fines. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an auto industry expert at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, told the New York Times that Volkswagen’s scandal could also damage the reputation of all German automakers which have tried to carve a foothold in the United States market for diesel engines.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.