Volkswagen missed a federal judge’s deadline Thursday for submitting a fix for its polluting diesel passenger cars, but the judge said he’s encouraged and gave the carmaker another month to work on the problem.
The embattled German carmaker, facing numerous lawsuits and regulatory enforcement actions, said it is continuing to work on “a solution for affected vehicles.” The comments appear to confirm statements made two weeks ago by officials with the California Air Resources Board, who told a legislative hearing in Sacramento that the cars might not be completely fixable because of technical problems.
Last fall, Volkswagen admitted to the California air board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it had equipped 600,000 diesel cars with “defeat device” software designed to evade air pollution restrictions. Officials said the cars are emitting up to 40 times the allowable nitrogen oxide, a key contributor to smog.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Judge Charles Breyer gave Volkswagen until April 21 to present a plan for the tainted cars. The judge also said he believes “substantial progress” had been made on finding a solution.
Breyer is overseeing hundreds of class-action lawsuits filed by vehicle owners, plus a mammoth case filed by the EPA. The EPA suit could generate billions of dollars in damages against the carmaker.
In a statement issued after the hearing, Volkswagen said it is “committed to resolving the U.S. regulatory investigation into the diesel emissions matter as quickly as possible and to implementing a solution for affected vehicles, as we work to earn back the trust of our customers and dealers and the public. We continue to make progress and are cooperating fully with the efforts undertaken by Judge Breyer, working through Director Mueller, to bring about a prompt and fair resolution of the U.S. civil litigation.”
Breyer appointed Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI, as “settlement master” in the litigation. His role is to facilitate discussions among the parties in an attempt to find a resolution without trial.
California air board officials declined comment on Volkswagen’s statement.
At Thursday’s hearing, Breyer said he would schedule a trial for this summer if Volkswagen doesn’t provide a detailed plan by April 21 for dealing with the cars, according to a report by Fortune magazine. Breyer told the lawyers he wants to know which cars can be fixed and which cars would have to be repurchased by Volkswagen from consumers if they aren’t fixable.
Air board officials said the defeat devices are so thoroughly embedded in the vehicles’ emissions-control systems that a complete repair might not be possible. The state is considering ordering Volkswagen to buy back the cars from consumers. But, given the cars’ popularity, the state said it might allow motorists to keep driving partially repaired cars even if they don’t comply with California’s strict air-emissions standards.
The rogue software activates the emissions controls when the cars are being tested but shuts the system off when the vehicles are on the road. Auto industry analysts say the emissions controls hurt fuel efficiency and handling – two of the vehicles’ key selling points with consumers.