Business & Real Estate

California, U.S. regulators to step up inspections amid Volkswagen pollution case

Newly appointed Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller speaks during a press statement after a meeting of Volkswagen's supervisory board in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, after CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned on Wednesday amid an emissions scandal.
Newly appointed Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller speaks during a press statement after a meeting of Volkswagen's supervisory board in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, after CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned on Wednesday amid an emissions scandal. The Associated Press

Federal and state regulators vowed to step up their inspections of diesel fuel cars in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal Friday, putting all carmakers on notice that they will use stringent road tests to ferret out software switches and other devices designed to circumvent air pollution standards.

As the embattled German carmaker named new leadership, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board and Canadian regulator Environment Canada said they will team up to test a sampling of all makes and models of diesel cars. The EPA and California agency sent separate “Dear Manufacturer” letters telling carmakers they can expect to have their models tested on the road.

The vehicles will be drive-tested under “conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use,” the California agency told the manufacturers. The road tests will supplement, not replace, the standard lab tests for emissions that have been in use for years and come in response to criticisms that the lab tests aren’t sufficient.

The move comes one week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California air board announced they were investigating Volkswagen for equipping its diesel cars with “defeat devices.” The devices, essentially software code, curbed emissions of smog-creating nitrogen oxide and other pollutants while the vehicles were being tested but not while the cars were actually in use.

After being alerted by independent researchers last year, scientists at the California air board’s test lab in El Monte confirmed the existence of the rogue software earlier this summer. Volkswagen officials admitted to the EPA and air board in early September that the cars with equipped with the devices.

Critics have said the problem could have been discovered sooner if the pollution agencies routinely road-tested the vehicles instead of relying on lab tests. EPA officials acknowledged their shortcomings, saying they’ve focused most of their road-test efforts in recent years on diesel trucks, which emit far more pollution.

“We are upping our game,” said Chris Grundler, director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, in a conference call with reporters.

Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California air board, said the agency didn’t have access until three years ago to the portable emissions testing devices needed to road-test diesel cars for emissions. “It’s fairly new technology, at least in any kind of decent working condition,” Clegern said.

The stepped-up testing regime will cover a sampling of new and used diesel cars, using rentals as well as cars loaned by private citizens. Officials wouldn’t go into detail about the types of tests the models will undergo, saying they don’t want to tip off the car manufacturers, but they vowed to be thorough.

“The smart engineers at EPA and the California Air Resources Board and Environment Canada have come up with clever ways to do this,” Grundler said.

Because of its air-pollution problems, California has special authority under the federal Clean Air Act to test vehicles and set its own pollution standards. The Air Resources Board is considered a pioneer in enforcing air-pollution rules, particularly when it comes to the automotive industry.

In a move unrelated to the Volkswagen case, the agency on Friday renewed its so-called low-carbon fuel standard, which requires a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2020. Carbon intensity measures a variety of things, from how much carbon is emitted during the actual production of the fuel to how much greenhouse gas the fuel gives off while the engine is running. The carbon standard is an essential piece of Assembly Bill 32, the state’s landmark climate change law enacted in 2006, and regulators say it will add a few cents a gallon to the price of fuel.

As for the diesel vehicles, officials said they don’t know what the stepped-up testing program will reveal.

“We’ve not seen any evidence that there’s a problem with another automaker, but it’s better to be safe,” Clegern said.

The Association of Global Automakers, in a written statement to The Wall Street Journal, said “we will continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board to ensure that the process achieves the objectives of the regulators, manufacturers and consumers.”

The notice came the same day that Volkswagen named Matthias Mueller, chief executive of its Porsche subsidiary, to run the whole company. He replaces Volkswagen’s deposed CEO Martin Winterkorn, who resigned earlier this week.

The EPA has said recalls of the Volkswagen vehicles are likely, and the case has become an international scandal for Volkswagen. There are an estimated 482,000 affected cars on the road in the United States, including at least 50,000 in California. Volkswagen has acknowledged that as many as 11 million diesel cars worldwide have been equipped with the defeat devices, although it said the software wasn’t activated on most of them.

Fixing the problem is expected to cost Volkswagen billions of dollars, not counting the likelihood of fines against the company.

The affected cars are Jettas, Beetles, Golfs and Audi A3s made in the 2009 to 2015 model years, as well as Volkswagen Passats made in 2014 and 2015. Only diesel cars are involved.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler