The VW scandal, the effectivness of regulation, and the science of engines


The small nonprofit organization, ICCT, that used a “simple road test” to uncover the VW defeat device has an annual budget of $12m; see this outstanding Guardian article.  “’We really didn’t expect to find anything,’ German said of his research that found Volkswagen had installed sophisticated software designed to cheat strict emission tests across the world. His simple test – checking the car’s emissions on real roads rather than in lab test conditions…”

The EPA’s 2015 budget is $7.89b. The EPA’s highway emissions lab is self-proclaimed “state of the art”. “Staff at NVFEL are highly trained professionals with backgrounds in automotive technology, engineering, mechanics, statistics, natural resources, and economics.”

With 658x the budget of ICCT, the EPA failed to execute, even once, a simple cross-check test outside of the lab and on the road. Really, someone at EPA needs to be fired and the EPA lab needs some severe shaking up. This is rich fodder for those who say our government is bloated and mostly useless.


I saw the Guardian article too.
The EPA has other responsibilities, but I agree with you that they should have been checking. It turns out that most diesels on our roads are heavy equipment, big trucks, and the EPA checks those on the roads as well as in the lab. Most in this case means 99%. All of the European agencies also failed in this, and VW and other manufacturers have sold and sell many more diesel passenger vehicles there.
Those people, in America, who say that government is bloated and mostly useless are not people in favor of sensible environmental regulation in the public interest. They believe that there shouldn’t be any of those “job-killing regulations” in the first place. Indeed, when they have the chance, they work to disable government agencies charged with enforcing regulations and laws. I place you, however, among the sensible people.
There is relevant physics and chemistry. I discussed this with my U. of Tampa students during a recent Science in the News segment.
Diesels operate differently than gasoline engines. Gasoline engines compress a mixture of air and fuel vapor by about 10. The compression warms the mixture but it needs a spark plug to ignite it. Indeed if it ignites before the spark it’s called dieseling or knocking, depending upon just what it is doing wrong. Diesel fuel, which has a different mixture of hydrocarbons than is in gasoline, is also somewhat more energy dense. The engine compresses air by about 20. Then fuel sprays in and ignites due to the hot air. No spark plug. As a heat engine’s efficiency depends upon the ratio of its high temperature to its low temperature, diesels can run more efficiently than gasoline engines. (1 – Tcold/Thot), right from my course. T in Kelvins. But the higher temperatures mean that nitrogen and oxygen in the air react to produce nitrogen oxides (NOx, where x is some small integers, and pronounced “nox”.) to a much greater extent in diesels than gasoline engines. It is the  NOx levels that VW was cheating on. The engineers have to find a way to meet the standards while achieving good performance and efficiency. The factors that lead to better efficiency and performance, that is, higher temperatures, also lead to more NOx emissions. It turns out that NOx is a major cause of smog and of proven damaging health effects. Thus the VW managers and engineers were knowingly accepting the deaths of some people. The tests run in California that uncovered the VW cheating were in co-operation with the California clean air agency, and it was the EPA who confronted VW with these results and eventually compelled them to confess.

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