Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 10 Nov 2015

Circumvention through the years

The outrage against 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 twenty years before VW. Cadillac’s engineers faced the same dilemma: how to comply with emissions control requirements without sacrificing performance? Not surprisingly, they solved the problem with the same strategy as VW, that is, to bypass the emissions control devices when the cars were on the road. Cars were simpler devices then, so Cadillac arranged the emission control device to be bypassed whenever either the radio or air conditioner was switched on – two features switched off during the lab test. The US Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t amused and fined Cadillac over $40 million.

A few years later , EPA discovered diesel engine manufacturers doing something similar. This time EPA fined the manufacturers a billion dollars. It also established regulations that manufacturers were prohibited from ever bypassing the emissions control devices. That should have been the end of the story. But, as the VW affair shows, it continues.

Manufacturers of appliances have been circumventing or stretching the limits of the energy test procedure for decades, too. In 1997, at the first EEDAL conference, German appliance companies complained that the Turkish refrigerator manufacturers were understating energy use. They accused the Turkish manufacturers of exploiting a weakness in the test procedure’s method of addressing measurement uncertainties. So we all got a chuckle when a representative of the British consumer magazine Which reported on the results of its independent tests. In fact, the Turkish refrigerators adhered closely to their reported values but the German refrigerators strayed far from their reported values.

The mini-split air conditioner is widely sold in in East Asia and, more recently, in Europe. This is a great technology, which delivers impressive efficiencies.  Furthermore, efficiencies regularly increased. How did they do it? Great designs and frequent innovations explained part of their performance improvements, 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 — temperatures, settings, persistence of temperatures, etc. — 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 they tested used this kind of logic.  When I raised this issue with the Japanese regulator at METI several years ago, he expressed total ignorance.

Japanese refrigerator manufacturers were notoriously clever at circumventing. So clever that laboratory consumption fell to less than half of in-home consumption over only a few years. Ironically, the performance of European imports provided one of the clues that circumvention was occurring.  Sales of European refrigerators in the Japanese market were so small that European manufacturers never “optimized” their models for the Japanese test procedure; as a result, these models’ consumption had fallen only modestly over the same time period. Embarrassed (and angry) regulators ultimately modified the test procedure to bring the laboratory test values down to reality. During the transition period, consumers were then confronted with confusing energy labels displaying both “old” and “new” consumptions that differed by 50%.

The United States had the case of LG refrigerators. LG circumvented the test procedure to achieve an energy consumption low enough to qualify for endorsement by Energy Star. Competitors noticed almost immediately and quietly raised the issue with DOE. I heard about it and wondered why the US Department of Energy did nothing. Perhaps they knew that American manufacturers were busy circumventing, too. I twice informally raised the LG matter with the Korean officials responsible for regulating LG appliances, warning them of the potential consequences. In fact, nothing happened until the US consumer magazine, Consumer Reports, published an exposé and forced DOE to act. You may be amused to learn that the terms of the settlement were partly negotiated 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 can tell many more stories like these. But the point is, everybody circumvents: the Europeans, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, and the Americans.

The root of circumvention is increasingly sophisticated microprocessor controls of energy-using equipment. These controls are a two-edged sword. On the negative side, the controls enable manufacturers to minimize an appliance’s energy consumption during the test procedure. On the plus side, the same features make possible many energy-saving opportunities. It’s much cheaper to reduce energy use through improvements in computation, sensing, and control than by adding more copper, insulation, and exotic materials. How do we encourage legitimate energy-saving and emissions-reducing software solutions while discouraging circumvention? The VW affair has shown that this is an important policy question.

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 consumptions. Another requirement might be transparent software.

We also have an old solution : regular field measurement and verification performed by utilities, governments, and independent groups.  Discrepancies can then trigger a closer investigation. (That’s how VW and the Japanese refrigerator manufacturers were caught.) These actions won’t eliminate circumvention, but they 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.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier