More than a year after Volkswagen acknowledged its diesel cars were rigged to violate U.S. and California air-pollution limits, the German carmaker has found a way to fix some of the newest models.
The California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday they’ve approved a repair plan for a limited number of diesel cars affected by Volkswagen’s air pollution scandal.
The approved fixes apply only to 2015 models of 2.0-liter diesel Volkswagen Beetle, Beetle Convertible, Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta, and Passat and Audi A3. About 70,000 of the cars were sold in the United States, including more than 10,000 in California. They represent about 15 percent of all the tainted vehicles sold in the United States by Volkswagen since 2009.
The repairs won’t clear up the problems completely. According to the Air Resources Board, excess emissions will be reduced by 80 percent to 90 percent.
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“This is one more step on the road to cleaning up the mess created by Volkswagen’s deception, but it is by no means the last step,” said Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols in a prepared statement. “There are more modifications to come for other model years, and further penalties to be decided.”
But Sacramento environmental activist Bill Magavern, of the Coalition for Clean Air, said Volkswagen should be forced to fix the cars completely or buy them back.
“The fix should reduce all of that excess pollution,” Magavern said. “Volkswagen cheated.”
Discovering the problem took regulators months. Coming up with a fix has taken even longer. Because the emissions controls systems are so complicated, officials with the Air Resources Board told a legislative committee last year that they were frustrated by the difficulties in finding a repair that would completely eliminate the problem.
Owners have the choice of having the cars fixed or accepting buyback offers from Volkswagen; lessees can cancel their leases without additional cost or penalty. Volkswagen has 10 days to officially notify the motorists about the repairs.
The repair plan is part of a court settlement approved last year in which Volkswagen agreed to spend up to $14.7 billion on buybacks, repairs and civil penalties for their 2.0-liter diesel engine vehicles. Last month Volkswagen agreed to a second settlement covering its pricier 3.0-liter vehicles, including buybacks and other compensation. That settlement is expected to cost the carmaker an additional $1 billion.
Volkswagen acknowledged that it had equipped its diesel cars with “defeat device” software designed to circumvent air-pollution regulations. The software switches off pollution-control systems when vehicles are on the open road.
Clues that something was wrong with Volkswagen diesels first emerged from road tests performed in Europe. Then in 2014 researchers from West Virginia University teamed with the Air Resources Board to examine Volkswagens’ performance. Engineers at the Air Resources Board lab in El Monte tested two cars in the lab and then handed the vehicles off to the university researchers. They road-tested the vehicles all over the state and found major discrepancies with the lab results. The air board engineers later confirmed the existence of the rogue software.
The tainted cars emit nitrogen oxide, or NOx, by up to 40 times the legal limits. NOx is a key component in the formation of smog. The Volkswagen repair plan involves the installation of a second NOx sensor and a new diesel oxidation catalyst, which cleans up the emissions.