How one school's 'little lab' revealed that Volkswagen was cheating emissions tests

Team of researchers spotted discrepancy between official, road emission tests

A team of West Virginia University researchers discovered what federal regulators missed: Volkswagen had been cheating on its diesel emissions for years, a finding that could reshape the automotive industry, Sonari Glinton reports for NPR.

In 2012, WVU research assistant professor Arvind Thiruvengadam and his coworkers won a grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation to test diesel cars' emissions on roads.

Volkswagen had the "boldest claims and highest sales," writes Glinton. But neither of the two cars the WVU team tested met the company's statements.

"We were never seeing those low emissions during most part of our drives on the interstate," Thiruvengadam told NPR. "We did so much testing that we couldn't repeatedly be doing the same mistake again and again."

The team began to suspect Volkswagen was cheating.

John German, from the transportation council, says he suspected the Volkswagen installed a "defeat device" designed to activate during the official emission tests—something he says is not unheard of.

Essentially, the device is a code that tells the computer when the car is on an official test cycle and changes how the emission control system functions.

"Someone had to take these vehicles out, test them on the standard cycle, make sure that the emission controls are supposed to be working when they're supposed to be working," German says.

The transportation council handed the data over to the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, which led to the announcement this month that Volkswagen diesel cars were emitting "up to 40 times more pollution" than legally allowed in the United States. Volkswagen's CEO has already resigned, and the company could face tens of billions of dollars in fines. The investigation also has shed light on how car companies are regulated.

"I feel satisfaction that we have contributed to something that will have a major impact on public health," German says (Glinton, NPR, 9/24; Chappel, NPR, 9/18).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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