Does VW "Cheatergate" Testing Issue Apply to Some of Our Televisions, Too?

A British newspaper is reporting that TV manufacturers may be "gaming the test" and underreporting electricity use similar to the recent Volkswagen scandal where the company installed "defeat device" software allowing diesel cars to exceed air pollution standards by as much as 40 times,

According to the Guardian, independent lab tests found that some Samsung TVs in Europe appear to use less energy during official testing conditions than in real-world use, which the newspaper says raises questions about whether they are set up to game energy efficiency tests. Samsung, however, strongly denies that its "motion lighting" feature is designed to cheat the testing, saying instead that it reduces screen brightness in response to numerous types of real-world content like fast-moving action—not just during test conditions. More independent testing is needed to determine what exactly is going on here.

Although there are no national energy efficiency standards for televisions in the United States, minimum efficiency standards exist in California for TVs with screens that are less 58 inches. In addition, manufacturers must test and report the energy use for all the models they offer for sale in America. Information on a TV model's annual energy use and cost to operate is displayed on the type of yellow EnergyGuide label shown below and which must appear on each TV at the retail level. Manufacturers may also apply the ENERGY STAR label to those models that meet ENERGY STAR's efficiency requirements.


Could TV or other electronics test cheating happen here?

We don't know—and more testing will be required to determine that. However, as I address later in this blog, there are safeguards in place to try to ensure the answer is "no."

Although televisions sold in Europe may not be the same as models on America's shelves, we can't totally rule out the possibility of similar issues here. With over 300 million TVs in the United States, the impact could be significant if one or more manufacturers cheated the test to show lower energy consumption than is actually occurring. After all, TVs in the United States, alone, consume several billion dollars a year worth of electricity.

Given the presence of advanced controls—and in some cases a mini-computer—inside many of today's electronics and other products, the potential increases dramatically for mischief by unscrupulous manufacturers to include "smarts" that allow a device to detect when a test is occurring and to then have the unit go into a special mode to temporarily reflect lower energy use and/or pollution levels

Such practices result in an unfair advantage for the manufacturer, higher than expected electricity bills for consumers who think they've made a smart energy choice, as well as increased emissions of harmful pollutants from power plants into the environment.

These "cheatergate" events must serve as wakeup call to all involved and should result in additional testing by regulators around the world, coupled by issuance of strict fines where non-compliance has been documented. In the United States, events like this also underscore the problems of having the budgets cut of regulatory agencies charged with enforcement. One of the most egregious examples is the Burgess Amendment that prohibits the Department of Energy (DOE) from spending money to enforce its efficiency standards for everyday light bulbs.

Meanwhile, NRDC is in the midst of testing new ultra high-definition (UHD) TVs, also referred to as 4K TV, for their energy use and saw what appears to be unusual behavior in one of the models sold in the United States. If further testing confirms the TV is outsmarting the test, it creates an unfair advantage for the manufacturer whose TV falsely appears to be superior from an environmental view, and results in consumers being ripped off.

Unfortunately, cheating during a test through the use of defeat devices or other techniques is not a new phenomena when it comes to appliances and electronics. For example, in 2009 the major appliance manufacturer LG was required by DOE to remove the ENERGY STAR label from 10 of its refrigerator models, plus 10 LG-made Kenmore models, as they were found to have installed software to detect the unique conditions that occur during the official DOE energy use test. This caused these models to enter a special mode during testing that resulted in much lower energy use. This proved quite costly to LG as they were no longer eligible for the hundreds of millions of dollars available for rebates for ENERGY STAR-qualified models.

Safeguards against cheating

Despite well-publicized events like the VW scandal, there are many elements in place to prevent this type of deception from becoming more widespread. Most notably there is a long history of manufacturers testing their competitors' products and reporting false claims or testing anomalies to regulatory officials.

In addition, government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency perform routine market surveillance testing to verify that the products claiming to meet the energy efficiency requirements under their ENERGY STAR labelling program are performing as promised.

Other U.S. agencies such as the Federal Trade commission (FTC) and DOE have stepped up enforcement activity and issued fines for false reporting of product energy use. In addition, we encourage regulators around the world to share the results of significant under-reporting of energy use or cheating that may be occurring. If Company X is cutting corners on the products it sells in one part of the world, there is a high likelihood it's doing the same elsewhere.

Cutting energy waste in our products has resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars of savings for consumers and businesses, and we are on track to avoid the need for more than 100 large coal power plants in the future—and the carbon pollution they would have emitted.

Let's make sure America's government agencies have the funds and staff to do the necessary testing and enforcement to catch the cheaters and bring them to justice, and ensure the efficiency train continues to deliver all the important benefits it is capable of bringing us.