Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 1, 2015

Contact: Kristen Monsell, (510) 844-7137,

After Volkswagen Scandal, Legal Petition Seeks Better Smog Testing, Bigger Fines

WASHINGTON— Following revelations that Volkswagen used “defeat devices” for years to cheat emissions testing and evade limits on dangerous air pollution, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition with the federal government today to require on-road tests for all cars and light trucks. The petition also seeks stiffer fines for companies that break fuel-economy rules meant to reduce pollution.  

The Environmental Protection Agency already requires on-road testing for heavy-duty diesel trucks — which the agency itself says has helped ensure compliance — but does not require such tests for passenger cars and other vehicles. Laboratory testing for those vehicles commonly fails to detect “defeat devices,” and “on-road” tests in real-world conditions are more accurate and more difficult to cheat.

“Lax EPA testing let Volkswagen cheat car buyers and pollute our air for years without getting caught,” said Kristen Monsell of the Center. “VW’s appalling actions show why the EPA must require on-road tests to catch car company cheats. Tougher tests will fight fraud and protect our health and climate from dangerous pollutants spewed by these cars.”

While the EPA prohibits the use of defeat devices, their use has sometimes been widespread. In 1998 the federal government settled an enforcement case against the diesel engine industry for using defeat devices in everything from tractor trailers to pick-up trucks. And in 1973 the agency found that VW had installed temperature-sensitive devices that turned off emissions controls on tens of thousands of its vehicles.

In addition to on-road testing, today’s petition also requests that EPA test other vehicles to determine if there is more pervasive use of defeat devices. It also asks that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration increase the penalties for violations of fuel economy standards.

The standards — known as CAFE standards — seek to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But government reports show that current penalties are too low to be a deterrent and that companies regularly choose to pay the fines rather than comply with the standards. The Center’s petition urges the highway administration to increase the penalty to the statutory maximum of $10 per 0.1 mile per gallon shortfall.

VW installed defeat devices in about 11 million of its diesel cars sold worldwide since 2009, including nearly half a million sold in the United States. The devices can detect when a car is being tested in a lab and adjust engine operations to emit less-polluting exhaust during the test than in real-world driving conditions.

EPA has said that VW’s actions allowed each car to emit up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides in the United States. Nitrogen oxides are a family of gases that react with other substances in the air to form dangerous pollutants linked to asthma, heart disease, strokes and even death. Nitrogen oxides emissions also contribute to climate change.

“Asthma kills thousands of Americans a year, and letting car companies get away with cheating on emissions tests puts more lives at risk,” Monsell said. “There’s no good reason for the EPA not to employ every method possible to detect fraud and protect public health and our climate. The Volkswagen debacle ought to be a wake-up call for the agency to make that happen.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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