Editorial: VW Isn't the Only One That Circumvents

November 01, 2015
November/December 2015
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The outrage against Volkswagen (VW) is justified, but let’s not forget that other manufacturers—a lot of manufacturers—have been circumventing energy and emissions tests for decades. Here are a few of my own experiences.

Cadillac was circumventing emissions test procedures 20 years before VW. Cadillac’s engineers faced the same dilemma: How do they comply with emissions control requirements without sacrificing performance? Not surprisingly, they solved the problem with the same strategy as VW; that is, bypass the emissions control devices when the cars were on the road. Cars were simpler devices then, so Cadillac arranged that whenever either the radio or air conditioner was switched on (two features not operated during the lab test), the emission control was bypassed. The EPA wasn’t amused and fined Cadillac over $40 million. Then EPA discovered diesel engine manufacturers doing something similar a few years later. This time EPA fined the manufacturers $1 billion. It also established regulations prohibiting manufacturers from ever bypassing the emissions control devices. That should have been the end of the story. But, as the VW affair shows, it continues.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

Mini-split air conditioners are widely sold in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia. They had impressive efficiencies, which continued to increase. How did they do it? Great designs explained part of their performance, but circumvention was the other reason. A friend working at a large Japanese air-conditioning company showed me the flow chart of the controls logic for a mini-split AC. (The document was marked “confidential” in Japanese.) The flow chart clearly showed the sequence of logical steps used to determine if the machine was being prepared for tests of its energy efficiency—such as temperatures, settings, persistence of temperatures—and the logical branch if the unit was being tested. In that case, it switched to a unique operating mode that led to more efficient operation, relying more on unacceptably noisy fans. An Australian regulator told me that practically every Japanese and Korean model tested had this kind of logic. When I raised this issue with the head Japanese regulator several years ago, he expressed total ignorance of it.

Japanese refrigerator manufacturers were notoriously clever at circumventing—so good that laboratory consumption fell to less than half of in-home consumption. Embarrassed (and angry) regulators finally rejiggered the test procedure to bring the laboratory test values down to reality. Consumers were then confronted with transitional energy labels displaying both “old” and “new” consumptions that differed by 50%.

ed Meier_photo1 VW recently got caught cheating on pollution emissions tests in the U.S., but it’s not the only major manufacturer to cheat the system. (Kintaiyo)

loser to home, we had the case of LG refrigerators circumventing test procedures to achieve an energy consumption low enough to qualify for Energy Star. Competitors noticed almost immediately and quietly raised the issue with DOE. I heard about it and wondered why DOE did nothing. I twice informally raised this matter with the Korean officials responsible for regulating LG appliances, warning them of the potential consequences. In fact, nothing happened until Consumer Reports published an exposé. You may be amused to learn that the settlement was partly dictated by telephone from a crowded restaurant in Brussels—between dessert and coffee—and it’s no coincidence that the U.S. settlement resembles that between the Australian government and LG.

With a beer in hand, I could tell many more stories like these. But the point is, everybody circumvents: the Germans, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, and yes, the Americans (we might have invented it!).

Will circumvention always be with us? I fear yes. However, for energy (and perhaps emissions), we have new solutions. One is energy reporting. More and more appliances are connected to the Internet. They can measure their own electricity use and “report” it to a central entity. Indeed, some do this already. Why not make energy reporting part of future labeling plans? That way consumers will be able to see both laboratory and actual energy consumption. Another requirement should be transparent software. These measures won’t eliminate circumvention, but they may offer a greater degree of confidence and perhaps even peace of mind. In the end, however, the only effective strategy is vigilance by those responsible for enforcing regulations for energy efficiency and emissions.

Alan Meier is Senior Executive Editor of Home Energy.

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