Au­tomak­ers have re­peat­edly proved that they can’t reg­u­late them­selves

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Dan Becker and James Ger­sten­zang Dan Becker di­rects the Safe Cli­mate Cam­paign of the Cen­ter for Auto Safety. James Ger­sten­zang is the cam­paign’s ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor.

The diesel en­gines on which Volk­swa­gen re­lied for at least seven years could meet crit­i­cal emis­sions stan­dards only with soft­ware de­signed to cheat on gov­ern­ment tests, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­closed this month. But in the ranks of cheaters, VW is not alone. At some point over the past four decades, VW has had plenty of com­pany among big au­tomak­ers in try­ing to evade emis­sions re­stric­tions.

Four steps could put an end to this his­tory of malfea­sance: The gov­ern­ment must in­ves­ti­gate the ex­tent of the cheat­ing, pun­ish VW, pros­e­cute com­pany of­fi­cials wher­ever crim­i­nal be­hav­ior is found — and over­haul its sys­tem for test­ing ve­hi­cles’ emis­sions and fuel ef­fi­ciency.

Right now, com­pa­nies con­duct tests for fuel ef­fi­ciency as well as smog and soot emis­sions — which cause and ex­ac­er­bate lung dis­ease and worsen child­hood asthma — largely on their own. With lit­tle spot- check­ing, the gov­ern­ment ac­cepts the re­sults. But the pol­luters have proved they can­not be trusted to po­lice them­selves. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency must take com­plete con­trol of the tests. TEST­ING FLAWS Com­pany af­ter com­pany has been cheat­ing. Chrysler re­called half its 1973 ve­hi­cles af­ter the EPA caught it us­ing “de­feat de­vices” that in­creased smog- caus­ing ni­tro­gen ox­ide emis­sions. Gen­eral Mo­tors paid a $ 45 mil­lion penalty for us­ing de­vices that let 1991 Cadil­lacs spew three times the car­bon monox­ide al­lowed by law. Honda paid a $ 267 mil­lion fine for us­ing de­feat de­vices on 1.6 mil­lion 1996 and 1997 mod­els. Diesel en­gine man­u­fac­tur­ers were fined more than $ 1 bil­lion in the 1990s for us­ing sim­i­lar de­vices.

Last year, Hyundai and Kia were fined for over­stat­ing their gas mileage, and Ford was forced to roll back its fuel ef­fi­ciency claims. Im­proved fuel ef­fi­ciency — spew­ing less car­bon diox­ide — is key to fight­ing global warm­ing.

The cur­rent test­ing pro­to­col lets com­pa­nies rou­tinely mea­sure their most ef­fi­cient, least pol­lut­ing mod­els and then ex­trap­o­late across their en­tire pro­duc­tion, pro­ject­ing com­pa­ny­wide mileage to demon­strate whether they are meet­ing gov­ern­ment stan­dards. This al­lows them to de­liver the most op­ti­mistic, though not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cu­rate, re­ports. And you won­der why the mileage you get dif­fers from what the win­dow sticker claimed?

Rather than spot- check­ing 15% to 20% of all mod­els be­fore al­low­ing com­pa­nies to of­fer them for sale, the gov­ern­ment must check 100% — on the road as well as in the lab. The au­tomak­ers’ cheat­ing has made the ex­panded test­ing nec­es­sary. They must pony up the ad­di­tional cost. IN­SUF­FI­CIENT PENAL­TIES EPA must also find out which VW of­fi­cials were re­spon­si­ble for what ap­pears to be one of the big­gest frauds in re­cent au­to­mo­tive his­tory and how the com­pany will make sure that ev­ery pol­lut­ing ve­hi­cle is re­paired. Agency hear­ings fea­tur­ing sworn tes­ti­mony from all auto CEOs — sub­ject to per­jury laws — should ex­plore whether their ve­hi­cles pol­lute too much. The last­ing im­age of Big To­bacco’s chiefs lined up to tell con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors 20 years ago that nico­tine is not ad­dic­tive might make the auto ex­ec­u­tives think twice.

Clearly, the penal­ties haven’t been suf­fi­cient to dis­cour­age cheat­ing. The gov­ern­ment must levy the strong­est al­lowed pun­ish­ment on VW. Any­thing less than roughly $ 18 bil­lion — re­flect­ing the max­i­mum al­low­able fine of $ 37,500 per ve­hi­cle — would be in­ex­cus­able.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion must also pros­e­cute any VW of­fi­cials who helped the com­pany break the law, and it must be pre­pared to go af­ter ex­ec­u­tives at other com­pa­nies found to be get­ting around emis­sions re­quire­ments.

The au­tomak­ers have a long his­tory of fight­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­pos­als and lob­by­ing for loop­holes. Car mak­ers are try­ing to weaken the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fuel ef­fi­ciency stan­dard that would de­liver a new- car fleet av­er­ag­ing 54.5 mpg in 2025.

Volk­swa­gen’s con­duct is only the lat­est ev­i­dence that auto com­pa­nies can­not be trusted to im­ple­ment crit­i­cal laws that keep the air clean. Only strict reg­u­la­tion will do the job. We need tight mon­i­tor­ing by reg­u­la­tors with strong en­force­ment author­ity and the guts to make sure com­pa­nies com­ply with strict reg­u­la­tions, and an auto in­dus­try that is cer­tain it will face painful pun­ish­ment if caught.

Gov­ern­ment guard dogs must watch more closely and bark louder. But that’s not enough; auto com­pa­nies must feel their bite as well.


A Volk­swa­gen branch in Dus­sel­dorf. Ger­man pros­e­cu­tors have opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the former CEO of VW.

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