The practices of Volkswagen, the car manufacturer that is embroiled in an ever-widening scandal over software specifically designed to hoodwink regulators with respect to emissions norms, were unmasked in part by research I conducted with my colleagues for a nonprofit called the International Council on Clean Transportation, which tries to provide independent science to government agencies that regulate the environment.
The study started as a routine academic project aimed at looking at the effect of real-world driving conditions on the emissions performance of modern diesel passenger cars in the US. The study was specifically aimed at testing the vehicles in the state of California, which is characterised by unique driving conditions and traffic patterns. What came out of the project was entirely a matter of chance. The findings that have become so popular today would not have turned many heads if the baseline certification emissions were not measured by the California Air Resources Board (Carb). This is a classic case of a regulatory body participating in academic research to unearth interesting trends in real-world emissions. Often, projects such as this are conducted on a small budget, and the contribution of resources from government organisations such as Carb improves the value of the findings.
Modern engines are sophisticated in their control strategy. Manufacturers often work with multiple constraints to both meet emissions standards and deliver the performance and fuel economy demands of customers. For me, as a mechanical engineer, these are interesting challenges in the field of engine development. While computerised engine controls help deliver efficiency, they also open the door to possible pathways to game the system. A “defeat device”, as Volkswagen’s cheating-enabling software is called, can be cleverly programmed to achieve optimum results during certification tests while reverting to conservative emissions-control strategies during real-world testing.
The biggest takeaway from the recent events concerning Volkswagen is that the current regulatory framework in the US (which has the most stringent emissions regulation in the world) does not adequately police the sophisticated controls employed by engine manufacturers. The recent events are not the first case of “emissions cheating” encountered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fifteen years ago, heavy-duty truck diesel engine manufacturers in the US were charged with a similar practice of employing an alternate emissions strategy during real-world operations to achieve lower fuel consumption. The fallout of the study (where the EPA and several major diesel engine manufacturers signed a consent decree, which is an agreement to resolve a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt in a criminal case or liability in a civil matter) in fact helped provide funding to West Virginia University’s Centre for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions to develop the first prototypes of the portable emissions measurement system (Pems). Since then, Pems have been commercially manufactured by various instrument producers, and one such instrument was coincidentally used to uncover the high emissions operations of Volkswagen. Policing the real-world operation of engines is a tedious operation, which is beyond the scope and resources of a government regulatory board. Ironically, the effort for real-world policing has to come from the manufacturer. Manufacturers should be made responsible for collection and transparent sharing of data with regulators in order to continuously monitor vehicle emissions beyond the laboratory certification processes. This has been shown to be possible with the in-use testing requirements that the EPA demands from heavy-duty diesel engine manufacturers.
What can Indian regulators take away from these events? India is at a critical junction with respect to automotive emissions regulation. There is a serious need to revamp emissions regulations to address the continuously decreasing air quality in major Indian cities. The Volkswagen scandal provides unique insight into what India would need in terms of developing an adequate regulatory framework. Currently, vehicle technologies and exhaust clean-up systems employed in Indian vehicles are significantly outdated when compared to Europe and the US. Aggressive emissions regulations will drive vehicles equipped with newer technologies into the market. Although low emission vehicles will come at a price, this is the need of the hour for a country that is experiencing exponential growth in vehicle population. Newer technology will also come with the need to actively monitor vehicle emissions in real time. A partnership between industry, academia and government is the most effective pathway to realising this goal. The EPA and other regulatory agencies in the US derive a lot of input from academic research in framing policies, setting air quality goals, assessing technology pathways and monitoring regulation. Indian regulatory agencies should also increasingly engage academic researchers to discern problem areas that may go unnoticed by the existing regulatory framework.
Another popular question that has come up recently is: What will happen to the cars post recall and the fix? That question is difficult to answer because the motive behind the defeat device is not known. The popular theory is that they were installed to improve fuel economy; however, there could be many more underlying reasons. Selective catalytic reduction technology requires urea injection (an added consumable for customers) to control NOx emissions. The conservation of urea to prevent frequent fill-up by consumers could also be a possible reason. The durability of engine components could be another. But, in my opinion, manufacturers have the ability to meet both emissions and fuel economy standards.
The path to achieving those goals could mean greater expense for both manufacturers and consumers, but it is not an engineering impossibility.
The writer is research assistant professor, mechanical and aerospace department, West Virginia University, US and one of the five co-authors of the research paper, titled “In-use emissions testing of light-duty diesel vehicles in the U.S.” that unmasked the Volkswagen scandal.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Cautionary car tales.’)