Cleaning up a General Mess

A couple of weeks ago, news came out in India that General Motors’ Tavera SUVs had not been meeting emission standards since 2005. It seems that certain GM employees kept special “lower emission” engines on hand for testing, while in reality Taveras sold to the public had something else under the hood. Furthermore, it’s not that GM identified the problem itself and took corrective measures. It wasn’t until a probe was launched by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways—thanks to whistleblowers within GM—that the company went ahead and announced a “voluntary” recall and fired several executives in the US and India.

Not surprisingly, this scandal has raised questions about the compliance and enforcement mechanisms for vehicle emission standards in India. Government officials and industry leaders are now calling for clear recall policies and expanded vehicle testing, something we’ve brought up many times. Given the newfound interest in this topic, I thought it’d be opportune to again review the differences between the US and Indian emissions compliance testing programs.

Currently, India does not have a national program to test vehicles that have been in use for some period of time to ascertain whether they still meet their original emission standards. Vehicles must pass “pollution under control” (PUC) checks, but PUC standards are not linked with a vehicle’s original emissions certificate. Moreover, PUC norms are weak, corruption in PUC testing is rampant, and PUC violations are rarely dealt with.

In contrast, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s emission compliance program rests to a great degree on in-use testing. The EPA’s in-use testing verification program (IUVP) requires manufacturers to randomly select samples of their vehicles out on the road and test them—at their own expense—according to their original emission standards. Test results are sent to the EPA, which conducts some in-use testing of its own to verify manufacturers’ claims. If violations of emissions regulations are found, manufacturers can face fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle and mandatory recalls of noncompliant vehicles.

Thus, focusing on in-use testing has several advantages:

  1. It ensures vehicle’s emissions are meeting their intended values, not only in the lab, but also out on the road—where people are exposed to vehicle emissions.
  2. Combined with hefty fines and strong mandatory recall policies for noncompliant vehicles, manufacturers have an incentive to ensure the production of quality products. This takes the burden off taxpayers to pay for costly testing.
  3. Manufacturers themselves reduce their liability by identifying and fixing problems before they get out of hand. This means that their investments in testing pay off in the long-term.

For GM—and possibly other vehicle manufacturers in India—these lessons may be learned the hard way. GM did not stop malpractices in its own factories for a full eight years. Not only will it have to recall 1.14 lakh Taveras, but it has also suspended production of other models, citing quality control issues. If there had been emissions testing of the Tavera and more all along, the mess GM is in now could’ve been avoided.

Looking forward, one can only hope that the current situation will lead automakers and regulators to come together to develop strong in-use testing and mandatory recall policies. Doing so would be in their best interests, and in the interest of the India’s populace.

Vehicle testing