Transportation

Recalls likely as regulators say Volkswagen software tricked smog tests

Workers complete cars at the assembly line during the so called ‘Open Door Day’ to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the plant of the German manufacturer Volkswagen Sachsen in Zwickau, eastern Germany, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015. More than 4.9 Million vehicles (Golf and Passat) have left the production facilities since foundation on the Zwickau plant in 1990. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
Workers complete cars at the assembly line during the so called ‘Open Door Day’ to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the plant of the German manufacturer Volkswagen Sachsen in Zwickau, eastern Germany, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015. More than 4.9 Million vehicles (Golf and Passat) have left the production facilities since foundation on the Zwickau plant in 1990. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer) AP

In a joint investigation with California air regulators, the federal government Friday accused Volkswagen Group of America of equipping 480,000 diesel-fuel cars with software designed to circumvent pollution limits.

The accusation leveled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board is likely to result in a recall of the vehicles, although the EPA hasn’t yet issued such an order. Tests conducted by ARB were instrumental in confirming Volkwagen’s actions, federal officials said.

The EPA and ARB sent notices accusing the German automaker of outfitting its diesel Jettas, Beetles and other vehicles with a “defeat device,” a piece of software that curbs emissions during smog tests but not during actual road travel. Federal officials said emissions levels were 10 to 40 times above the legal limit.

“Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean-air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant EPA administrator, in a prepared statement. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules.”

The EPA “will require VW to remedy the noncompliance,” said agency spokeswoman Liz Purchia in a written statement. She said the outcome of the case “will be detailed in the future,” but the EPA said on its website that Volkswagen owners can expect a recall notice at some point. The agency added that the cars are safe to drive and that repairs would be done at Volkswagen’s expense.

The EPA said Volkswagen theoretically could be fined as much as $37,000 for every vehicle out of compliance, a total of $18 billion. However, a smaller fine is more likely. The largest fine levied against an automaker in U.S. history totaled $1.2 billion, paid by Toyota last year over safety defects linked to 37 deaths.

Volkswagen has touted its “clean diesel” vehicles in marketing campaigns, and consumers who bought its Jetta diesel sedans or wagons in 2009 were eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit. Auto-industry expert Dave Sullivan said meeting the air-pollution standards honestly would have probably required the installation of a so-called regeneration system, which can reduce miles per gallon.

“You lose fuel economy,” said Sullivan, manager of product analysis for Tustin research firm AutoPacific.

Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy at Consumers Union, said in a prepared statement: “Volkswagen was ripping off the consumer and hurting the environment at the same time. The carmaker was apparently installing software in vehicles that effectively let them generate more pollution than advertised. It’s outrageous.”

Independent researchers at West Virginia University and the International Council on Clean Transportation, an organization with offices in the United States and Germany, first discovered the discrepancy between lab-test and road-use emissions more than a year ago. The two organizations alerted both the EPA and the California agency. Because of its severe air pollution problems, California is permitted by the federal Clean Air Act to set its own standards and conduct its own tests for auto emissions.

Confronted by federal and state officials, Volkswagen first claimed the discrepancy was caused by “various technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions,” according to the notice the EPA sent Volkswagen of America on Friday. Nonetheless, the carmaker issued a limited, voluntary recall last fall.

Follow-up testing led by the California ARB at its lab in El Monte this spring showed the problem hadn’t been solved, said agency spokesman Stanley Young. The cars were still emitting considerably more NOx, or nitrogen oxides, than they should have. NOx is a leading contributor to smog.

The ARB shared its findings with Volkswagen and then the EPA. “None of the potential technical issues suggested by VW explained the higher test results consistently confirmed during CARB’s testing,” the EPA said in its notice to the automaker.

Volkswagen came clean in a meeting with the staffs of both agencies Sept. 3. The automaker said “these vehicles were designed and manufactured with a defeat device,” according to the official notice the California agency sent to Volkswagen.

Young said “our major goal is to ensure that these cars come into compliance, that they’re the same in the real world as they are on the test bench.” The automaker eventually could face fines or other enforcement actions in California, he said.

The agencies plan to “dig more deeply into the extent and implications of Volkswagen’s efforts to cheat on clean air rules, and to take appropriate further action,” said Richard Corey, executive officer of ARB, in a prepared statement.

The EPA said the recall affects VW Jettas, Beetles, Golfs and Audi A3s made in the 2009 to 2015 model years. It also covers VW Passats made in the 2014 and 2015 model years. Only diesel cars are affected.

Young said ARB believes there are as many as 50,000 affected vehicles on the road in California.

Volkswagen of America spokesman Darryll Harrison Jr. said the company is cooperating with the federal and state agencies but had no further comment.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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