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More than 11 million Volkswagen and Audi vehicles sold with diesel engines may contain software designed to provide false or misleading emissions data during testing, leading to a worldwide recall and investigations by government regulators.
On September 18, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation (NOV) of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America Inc., indicating that certain four-cylinder diesel cars from model year 2009 to 2015 were equipped with “defeat devices”, which are software designed to circumvent EPA emissions standards for certain air pollutants.
The EPA claims that Volkswagen is in violation of at least two important provisions of the Clean Air Act, and the automaker will likely face hefty fines and potential liability through class action lawsuits brought on behalf of VW and Audi vehicle owners.
According to the EPA’s NOV, the defeat devices are a sophisticated software algorithm installed on certain Volkswagen vehicles that detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing and turns full emissions controls on only during the test. The software disengages the vehicles emissions controls under normal operation and allows the vehicles to emit nitrogen oxides at up to 40 times the allowable limit under the Clean Air Act. The results of using a defeat devices in vehicles allows automakers sidestep vehicle specifications under the Clean Air Act by ‘cheating’ on emissions tests.
The Clean Air Act prohibits the use of defeat devices and requires vehicle manufacturers to certify to the EPA that their products will meet applicable federal emission standards to control air pollution. Without this certification that particular vehicle may not be sold in the U.S.
The EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) were notified of the problem by researchers at West Virginia University, who were working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization. During a study, the organization noticed increased emissions levels in certain diesel engine vehicles manufactured by Volkswagen which were directed towards the EPA and CARB. After reviewing the West Virginia researcher’s data, the EPA and CARB demanded an explanation from Volkswagen for the increased emission levels to which the automaker admitted that the cars contained a defeat device.
“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” Volkswagen AG CEO, Dr. Martin Winterkorn, said in a September 20 statement. “We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation on this matter.”
The EPA has forced a recall of the nearly 500,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. with the defeat device software and has also demanded that Volkswagen halt the sales of questioned vehicles until the investigation has concluded. In Sunday’s statement acknowledging use of defeat devices, Winterkorn agreed to fully cooperate with all demands from the EPA including the halt of sales, although no numbers of officially halted vehicles were mentioned.
Volkswagen issued a statement today stating that the “discrepancies” may affect 11 million vehicles worldwide.
The EPA stated on Friday that Volkswagen could face upwards of $18 billion in civil penalties and injunctive relief for the intentional violations against the Clean Air Act. EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said the agency would be working very closely with the Department of Justice on the investigation but there has been no determination of whether a criminal probe will be opened.
The attempt to fool emissions has gained attention from the White House claiming that they are “quite concerned” about VW intentionally disregarding emissions requirements. The attempt has even attracted congressional notice resulting in the House of Representatives panel planning a hearing in the coming weeks.
During the initial stages of the EPA and CARB’s investigation, the agencies questioned Germany’s Robert Bosch Company who is the supplier of diesel emissions control devices to VW. Accordingly when asked whether Bosch had supplied the electrical module centrals to VW, the company’s spokesman replied “We supply components for exhaust after-treatment to several manufacturers”.
The EPA and California officials have stated publicly that there will be advanced emissions testing on diesel vehicles from other vehicle manufacturers in the U.S. who may have attempted similar violations. Some of the largest selling diesel manufacturers in the U.S. that may be targeted first are General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.