Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Unclean Diesels

I'm surely not the only one who is suddenly obsessing over minute details of emission control machinery.

If you're like me, start your quest for knowledge with Vox's superb explainer: Volkswagen's appalling clean diesel scandal, explained

Suffice to say, regulators were livid once they caught on. Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Volkswagen had very flagrantly violated the Clean Air Act. Not only did the EPA order the German firm to fix the affected vehicles — which include diesel TDI versions of the Golf, Jetta, Beetle, and Passat — but the agency could end up levying fines as high as $18 billion. The Department of Justice is also contemplating criminal charges.

Then start following the links that Vox so wonderfully provides.

Here are a couple I found particularly interesting:

  • The tech behind how Volkswagen tricked emissions tests
    When carmakers test their vehicles against EPA standards, they place a car on rollers and then perform a series of specific maneuvers prescribed by federal regulations. Among the most common tests for passenger cars is the Urban Dynamometer Driving Schedule (UDDS), which simulates 7.5 miles of urban driving.


    Using a special engine setting for vehicle tests isn’t all that unusual, according to Consumer Reports. Most new vehicles do something similar because otherwise vehicles might interpret some of the testing procedures, like traction issues from being on rollers, as dangerous.

  • How Volkswagen Got Busted for Skirting EPA Diesel Emissions Standards
    “Developing an engine software to optimize certain aspects of an operation cycle that you know the parameters of is a challenge, but it is very possible,” says Thiruvengadam. “Knowing when to switch to the EPA-favorable cycle is the trick; it could be set up to detect the absence of steering-wheel movement, or, and this is known, we often turn off the traction control for testing purposes.” Either way, the result is the same: it turns the emissions controls on for EPA testing and off for real-world driving. Somewhat ironically, the presumed benefits of turning off the controls for normal driving include improved fuel economy and engine power.
  • VW's Emissions Cheating Found by Curious Clean-Air Group
    German and his group were actually trying to prove exactly what Volkswagen has been claiming for years: that diesel is clean. They asked West Virginia University for help. The school’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions had the right equipment -- a portable emission measurement system to stick in the car trunk, attached to a probe to shove up the exhaust pipe. German’s group, funded mostly by foundations, didn’t.

    Testers drove the monitor-equipped diesels from San Diego to Seattle because if Volkswagen had gamed the emission test, they couldn’t be sure how, German said. In another cheating case years ago, he said, long-haul trucks were equipped with devices that allowed the engines to gradually discharge more and more harmful nitrogen oxides the longer the vehicle cruised at the same speed. The more emissions, generally speaking, the greater the engine power. The 1,300-mile trip under varying conditions would expose any such scheme in the VWs, German said.

    Meanwhile, the California Air Resources Board tested the vehicles in their laboratories and they passed.

    Open Road

    Then German received the results of the real-world tests.

    “We were astounded when we saw the numbers,” he said.

Vox brings it all back into focus:

This episode also raises questions about the future of clean diesel vehicles. Clean diesel appears to be a genuinely promising technology — in theory, such vehicles could get both excellent mileage and lower emissions. But this whole scandal raises serious questions about how well automakers can actually achieve both goals in practice.

What do we know, what do the computers know, and what do the computers allow us to know?

While we try to figure that out, let's not forget how manipulated we may have been, by those (few) media outlets we thought we could trust: Wired's native ad for VW diesel tech goes missing

As recently as last week, Wired magazine on social media was touting content sponsored by Volkswagen about "how diesel was re-engineered."

But this week -- just as VW faces growing scrutiny over software installed on its diesel vehicles that evades emissions tests -- previously published links to the branded content are no longer working.

A reference to the program was still visible until earlier today on the "Clean Diesel" section of VW's web site. Under a sub-section called "Diesel Gets WIRED" the site had said "Volkswagen and Wired Brand Lab have created an experience that will inform, educate, surprise, and change the way you think about diesel," while teasing content that describes "how a once unloved engine has cleaned up its act."

But the link urging viewers to "visit the Wired experience" was yielding only an error message as of Tuesday.

There are plenty of sad stories to go around, here.

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