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Volkswagen Under Siege Due to Cheating on Emissions Tests - October 4, 2015

    In today's society, with all the non-gmo, cage-free, pesticide-free, 100% electric, BPA-free, sustainable labels put on everything, it is not a bad idea to actually verify these claims. While we want to believe these companies and corporations would not lie to us, or the federal government or international community, often times what they put on the label might be misleading or untruthful. While there seems to be a big news story every week about some company mislabelling its products, one of the biggest scandals recently has to do with the Volkswagen (VW) company and their car’s emissions, specifically the high nitrogen oxide emission levels. 
 
    This current scandal started several years ago when Daniel Carder and his research team at West Virginia University started to research actual road going emissions from Volkswagen cars after receiving a grant from the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation in late 2012. Carder and his team tested the VW Passat, the VW Jetta and the BMW X5 by driving around Los Angeles and up the West Coast to Seattle. Much to their surprise, they found that the BMW had average emission levels during the test, however the Volkswagen vehicles had anywhere between 10 to 40 times the legal levels. The research team actually finished their study in 2013, and even presented it in a public forum, however it did not really find traction until over a year later. 
 
    So how did Volkswagen actually fool the emissions test? Currently the exact details are still under investigation, but essentially Volkswagen is accused of having computer software in their engines that could sense test scenarios by monitoring speed, engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel. When the Volkswagen cars were being put through their emissions testing, the program appears to have switched the vehicle into a “safety mode,” where the engine ran below normal power and performance and therefore did not emit nitrogen oxide above legal limits. Once on the road and done with testing, the program would switch the car back to “normal mode,” where the engine could emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than legal limits.
 
    Unfortunately, the computer program to fool emissions testing was installed into a huge number of cars, both nationally and internationally. That fact, coupled with the huge push by Volkswagen to sell diesel cars specifically citing their low emissions, means that millions of cars worldwide will need to be fixed or recalled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found over 482,000 cars with the program in the U.S. alone, including the VW-manufactured Audi A3, and the VW brands Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat. Volkswagen itself, perhaps due to internal or external pressure, has also come out and admitted that around 11 million VW cars worldwide have the computer program necessary to cheat on emissions tests. 
 
    All of this combines to mean that Volkswagen will have to pay out some big money. Already Volkswagen has put aside nearly $7.3 billion in advance of the U.S. recall. However, the EPA also has the power to fine a company up to $37,500 for each vehicle that breaches standards - a maximum fine of about $18 billion. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of monetary loss for Volkswagen. Volkswagen shares have plummeted by nearly 30% since the news of the scandal and could fall even more as Volkswagen is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department and the California Air Resources Board for further violations. On top of that, the UK, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and Germany, are opening investigations into Volkswagen emissions as well. 
 
    The Volkswagen emissions scandal has been a slap to the face of the EPA and they are not taking it lightly. Last Friday the EPA told automakers that it will begin road tests of all new vehicle models and vehicles already on the road to examine emissions claims. The EPA also plans to begin testing all light vehicle models already on the road in the U.S. to check for similar violations. 
 
    In a statement to automakers, the EPA announced “The EPA may test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device.” The EPA went on to say that they are not giving out more specifics on testing right now, as they believe the automakers should not have more information on the testing in case more decide to try to cheat emissions testing. 
 
    For their part, Volkswagen admits that they made a major mistake. "We've totally screwed up," said Volkswagen America boss Michael Horn, while group chief executive Martin Winterkorn said his company had "broken the trust of our customers and the public” before resigning. As of now, investigations are still ongoing as to what executives actually knew at the company, however we can assume that there must have been some executives and managers who knew about the emissions cheating program and did not come out to the public about it. If this is true, than we can also expect to see many more Volkswagen executives and employees getting fired in the days to come. 
 
 
Harrison Jackson is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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