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Volkswagen’s installation of emissions testing “defeat devices” in its diesel cars was decidedly illegal, and the company should be severely punished for flouting our pollution controls in such an egregious manner. But its cheating is merely the proverbial tip of the emissions iceberg. While the largest and most deceptive greenwashing scam in recent memory, it’s just one more example of EPA’s failed regulatory oversight approach over car emissions. EPA’s emissions testing is like Swiss cheese, with holes big enough to drive a car through.
Automotive manufacturers regularly skirt emissions testing in complete legality: it’s an open secret that the insidious practice of emissions gaming occurs with impunity. Emissions gaming is the practice of designing a vehicle to perform better on emissions tests than in real-world conditions. Like teaching to the test, these cars are made to score highly on the emissions test, even if they fail in the real world.
These legal practices of emissions gaming result in real-world vehicle emissions up to 35 percent higher than the legal limit. Not only do these uncounted emissions pose significant health impacts, they are in essence a form of legalized consumer fraud. The practice is so widespread that manufacturers who do not join in are at a competitive disadvantage.
To counter this gaming, the EPA must carry out extensive real-world testing, as it was poised to do until it stopped developing such a capacity in 2001. Had EPA maintained its real-world emissions testing program, the Volkswagen “defeat devices” would have been detected years ago.
Granted, EPA is stepping up real-world emissions testing for diesel cars following the VW scandal. But emissions testing is broken for both diesel and gasoline cars, and for vehicle fuels as well. EPA still has no plans to conduct real-world testing on gasoline cars, and on the fuels themselves.
The EPA must be more stringent about emissions testing. We need to get serious about reducing tailpipe emissions, which contribute 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and nearly half of all toxic emissions. The Obama Administration has set commendable standards for vehicle tailpipe emissions under the Corporate Average Fleet Emissions standards. But these standards are meaningless if they are met using subterfuge.
The question is, can car manufacturers build vehicles that meet federal standards while providing the driving experience consumers want at a price point they can afford? The answer would seem to be no: Volkswagen would probably not have taken such a risky gambit had it not felt compelled to do so. Indeed, according to recent Congressional testimony from Michael Horn, Volkswagen America’s President and CEO, VW engineers likely installed the “defeat devices” because of “pressure in the system to get resolutions, and also cost pressure.”
Reducing emissions further does seem costly for consumers and difficult from an engineering standpoint. Luckily, there is a piece of everyone’s car that is largely untouched as far as emission reductions go, and it could provide a low-cost solution. Need a hint? It’s what’s in the tank.
Making engines more efficient without addressing fuel quality is like going to the gym but still eating donuts for breakfast. It’s only addressing half the problem. Without also addressing fuels, it will become increasingly—and unnecessarily—difficult and costly to meet strict emissions standards.
The Volkswagen scandal should serve as a warning. Automotive manufacturers have made significant strides in designing cleaner engines, but there is a point of diminishing returns in an ‘engine only’ strategy. Just as the engine must be optimized, so must the fuel.
Luckily, both automakers and the Department of Energy are already investigating the optimal design of fuels and engines together. In designing fuels and engines together, significant reductions in both carbon dioxide and other harmful tailpipe emissions is possible. EPA should aid, not impede, these efforts to optimize the energy efficiency of engines AND fuels.
Carol Werner is the Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. EESI is an independent, nonprofit policy outreach and education organization based in Washington, DC, that promotes successful examples of sustainable energy and development and expands their impact through innovative policy solutions.