EPA Takes Its Emissions Tests Out Of The Labs & Onto The Streets

November 10, 2015

Lots of people are hoppin' mad about Volkswagen's emissions-test-cheating software, but few are as upset as the folks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To discover how commonplace Volkswagen's illegal code may be and to ensure that a scandal like this doesn't pop up again, the New York Times reports that the EPA is changing the way that it carries out emissions tests. 

That's a very big deal. The EPA has often faced criticism because its tests take place under artificial conditions. Worse, automakers are thoroughly familiar with those conditions, which allows them to tweak their vehicles for optimum performance. As a result, the EPA's tests regularly fail to match up with real-world results.

In Volkswagen's case, these problems have been thrown into sharp relief. The software that Volkswagen installed on more than 11 million Audi, Seak, Skoda, VW, and other diesel vehicles was specifically designed to sense when those vehicles were being put through emissions tests -- for example, when they were being loaded onto dynamometers. When that happened, the vehicles were on their best behavior, but later, the software turned off emissions controls, boosting performance and spewing up to 40 times the legal limit of fumes into the air.

But no more. While the EPA isn't totally abandoning its beloved labs, the agency says that it will also take its tests on the road -- literally -- to ensure that vehicles comply with federal regulations. The EPA's colleagues in Canada are doing the same.

Though automakers say that they're happy about this move, you can bet that they're feeling a little nervous. The EPA has refused to provide details about the new on-road tests, making it harder for would-be cheaters to game the system. In some cases, the EPA hasn't even gotten its test cars from automakers, but through dealers or even owners.

So far, the EPA claims to have discovered deceptive software installed on 10,000 additional Volkswagen diesel vehicles with 3.0-liter engines. Volkswagen disputed the agency's findings, but it has issued stop-sales on the suspect Audi, Porsche, and VW models, just to be safe. So far, diesel vehicles from other automakers have found to be in compliance.

Eventually, the EPA will widen its focus to include non-diesels. It has even said that it plans to conduct spot-checks on older vehicles.

Our take? Frankly, we're surprised that it's taken the EPA this long to begin carrying out real-world tests. Apparently, the agency failed to learn what every high school teacher knows: to catch a cheater, you have to think like one.

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