How Volkswagen programmed its cars to skirt the law

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Today, the Environmental Protection Agency forced German automaker Volkswagen to recall and fix nearly half a million VW and Audi cars. VW also faces billions in fines. From the Associated Press:

The cars, all built in the last seven years, include a device programmed to detect when they are undergoing official emissions testing, the EPA said, adding that the cars only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. The controls are turned off during normal driving situations, the EPA said. The EPA called the company's use of the device illegal and a threat to public health.

The software, known as a defeat device, was installed in 4-cylinder VW and Audi vehicles manufactured between 2009 and 2015. It's meant to "conceal the cars’ emissions of the pollutant nitrogen oxide, which contributes to the creation of ozone and smog," according to the New York Times. These compounds can lead to respiratory health problems.

The use of this type of software is prohibited under the Clean Air Act. This isn't the first time that defeat devices have been used to skirt the law. The EPA has previously fined Honda and Ford.


Whether the illegal software will be fixed via over-the-internet updates or whether car owners will have to go to a dealership to have the problem fixed "has yet to be determined," a VW spokesperson told Fusion in an email. "This is a notice of non-compliance that needs to be addressed. Volkswagen will develop a remedy in coordination with EPA and CARB [California Air Resources Board]." CARB is the regulatory agency in California that oversees air quality issues.

We can add this to the list of ways machines are being programmed to deceive us. Bad robot!

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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