Why Did it Take California Officials 18 Months to Act on VW's Scam?

A nondiesel model by Volkswagen
A nondiesel model by Volkswagen

Federal and state officials knew about Volkswagen's alleged emissions system hack way back in March 2014.

As many as 50,000 vehicles in California could have dumped as much as 40 times the allowable limit of nitrogen oxide, a smog-creating pollutant that's especially harmful to children, for 18 months' worth of driving before government officials acted.

While the California Air Resources Board launched an investigation sometime last year, it failed to tell the public about the issue, and it didn't immediately try to stop VW from selling diesel polluters in a state that has traditionally had the nation's worst smog issues.

In a letter to Volkswagen Group of America representatives, CARB chairwoman Mary D. Nichols admits that a presentation by West Virginia University researchers to a Coordinating Research Council "Real World Emissions Workshop" held in San Diego March 30 through April 2 of 2014 "brought" the VW issue to the board's "attention."

In fact, the board was the top co-sponsor of the event, and two CARB officials are listed as having been in attendance.

One of them, Tao Huai, CARB's branch chief for freight emissions testing and research, confirmed that he was there for the West Virginia University presentation, but he did not want to speak further without permission from the board's media handlers, who did not get back to us as promised.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey is a Palmdale Republican who has been critical of the Air Resources Board in the past. He wants to know why CARB didn't inform Californians of the VW pollution problem sooner.

"I think they should dispel any mystery as to why they didn't take this serious at least in informing the public or taking affirmative action against Volkswagen," he said.

Between March of last year and Friday, when the board finally released a public statement about the situation, is "a long period with a lot of vehicles and a lot of impact," Lackey said. "Clearly there was a misstep here."

Authorities alleged that software on 2009 to 2015 two-liter diesel engines produced by VW and installed in a range of vehicles, including some Audi A3s, detected when smog testing was occurring and activated pollution-control hardware that otherwise was deactivated during regular driving.

According to a CARB statement, the hack "results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard. The software produced by Volkswagen is a 'defeat device,' as defined by the Clean Air Act."

Nicols' letter says the state board's investigation led to "discussions over several months" that "culminated in VW's admission in early September that it has, since model year 2009, employed a defeat device to circumvent CARB and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] emission test procedures."

As early as Dec. 2, at the behest of both California and federal environmental regulators, VW promised to fix the hack with a software recall, but state officials say "the fix did not address" the pollution "issues," according to Nichols' letter.

CARB did its own tests starting in May and shared its results with VW and the EPA on July 8, Nichols wrote: Volkswagen's recall reduced emissions "to some degree," but California officials still found that "the recall calibration resulted in the vehicle failing" nitrogen oxide standards, she said.

All this was done in virtual secrecy. People were allowed to continue buying, leasing and driving these cars.

CARB and the EPA delayed taking action as VW "continued to assert ... that the increased emissions from these vehicles could be attributed to various technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions," according to an EPA letter sent to Volkswagen Friday.

In that letter, signed by EPA Air Enforcement Division director Phillip A. Brooks, the date of the hack's discovery by federal and CARB officials is mistakenly stated as May 2014. 

File photo of a nondiesel VW by Volkswagen
File photo of a nondiesel VW by Volkswagen

An agenda for the "Real World Emissions Workshop" appears to show that West Virginia University researchers presented their findings on VW diesel vehicles on March 31.

The alleged cheat was discovered by West Virginia University researchers after the International Council on Clean Transportation, curious about the discrepancies between smog-test data and real-world pollution in the four-cylinder VW diesel vehicles, enlisted West Virginia University researchers to take a look. See the results here.

The academics' eye-opening data was presented in San Diego in front of both California and federal environmental protection officials.

"We presented this in a public forum in San Diego, in the spring of 2014," the university's Dan Carter told engineering publication IEEE. "We said, these are two vehicles — we’re presenting what we can present. And EPA people were in the audience."

In a powerful, smog-wary state used to setting auto policy for the nation and the world, California officials stood back as the EPA took the lead in the matter, issuing a notice of violation to VW Friday.

The EPA says that increased ozone caused by diesel particulates can "worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma," according to the agency's letter. "Children are at greatest risk of experiencing negative health impacts from exposure to ozone."

Feds say the hack affects 482,000 VWs in the United States. The cars still at dealerships are grounded. Those on the road won't be re-registered unless the hack is undone.

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