How Common Are EPA “Defeat Devices” In The Auto Industry?

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I discovered in the comment thread of Jo’s first piece on the Volkswagen diesel scandal that one of our frequent commenters here on CleanTechnica used to work for the EPA, and part of his work was to find “defeat devices” — that is, devices auto companies used to trick EPA emissions tests. As shocking and horrible as Volkswagen’s dirty diesel cheat was, the more concerning thing is that this is close to the norm within the auto world!

“Michael G” said it with more expertise and experience than I can offer, so here’s his full comment (with minor edits to fit CleanTechnica‘s style guide):

When I worked at the EPA, finding these defeat devices was “part of the job.” We never had any trouble with the Japanese, but all the other manufacturers were doing highly suspect things. With microprocessor engine controls in every car, it is very hard to find what is going on.

Once, a VW was in the middle of failing a 100,000-mile driving test (pollution devices had to work for 100,000 miles) and suddenly caught fire, so the test had to be restarted. EPA engineers joked they were sure they saw a broken “Molotov cocktail” on the road next to the car. There were some other VW shenanigans, but they were too complicated to explain. I owned a VW at the time, but it was falling apart constantly so I had no sympathy whatever for VW.

Chrysler got caught doing something like VW, but was caught in testing, so it paid a smaller fine.

Ford lied like crazy and the EPA director had a big photo over his desk of the million $ check for a fine they had to pay. They were also ordered to “behave cooperatively” as opposed to the snarling obnoxious behavior they had formerly exhibited.

I also caught Ford in a defeat device and had to write a memo to them asking for written info instead of the lying (but sooo friendly) PR guys they sent out. They never answered, so my letter was used in court as proof that we had tried but they hadn’t cooperated.

GM was no better, but they were cleverer so we couldn’t catch them in testing. Enforcement division out in the field got them.

Honestly, it was just an “EPA doesn’t tell US what to do” attitude — it would have been cheaper for them if they had followed the Japanese example and just made clean cars to begin with.

Pretty despicable, eh? Thanks to Michael for sharing this useful perspective.

How much has changed up to today? How much is likely to change in the coming years as a result of this Volkswagen case? And what will come of this case? CleanTechnica commenter “JamesWimberley” added the following point yesterday:

The fun side of this for observers will be the criminal charges. Belatedly responding to justified complaints that the crooked or negligent bankers who got us into the financial crisis in 2007 escaped scot free, the US DOJ has just unveiled a shiny new policy on white-collar crime that it will systematically go after individuals not just corporations. Dieselgate is perfect for a test run: the company has admitted liability, the crime was not by negligence but carefully planned, and the whole thing must be copiously documented. I speculate that Merkel will cooperate with US prosecutors on the investigation and the extraditions, in exchange for not bankrupting the company entirely.

There’s a lot to unfold still. And perhaps in the most positive respect, how will this uncovering of diesel scamming help to quicken the EV revolution?

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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