Why the EPA is investigating Volkswagen

Volkswagen AG, the German car manufacturer, is under investigation by California and US emissions regulators for allegedly circumventing emission tests with a new device.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
A Volkswagen logo is seen on the grill of a Volkswagen on display in Pittsburgh, Feb. 14, 2013. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says nearly 500,000 Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars built in the past seven year are intentionally violating clean air standards by using software that evades EPA emissions standards.

Volkswagen AG is under investigation for circumventing clean air rules.

German automotive company Volkswagen AG is under investigation by California and US environmental regulators. The US Environmental Protection Agency told Reuters Volkswagen allegedly used software to circumvent emissions testing of specific air pollutants.

“Put simply, these cars contained software that turns off emissions controls when driving normally and turns them on when the car is undergoing an emissions test,” Cynthia Giles, an EPA enforcement officer, told Reuters via teleconference.

The feature, known as a “defeat device,” is allegedly present in 4 cylinder Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from 2009-2015, which total nearly 500,000 vehicles. The device is programmed to detect when the car is undergoing an emissions test and turn on the full emissions controls. The device then turns the emission controls off during normal driving. The result being far more pollution than the company reported, the EPA told The New York Times.

The pollutant the “defeat device” is designed to conceal, nitrogen oxide, has been linked by public health officials to variety of health problems, including asthma.

The 500,000 diesel vehicle models affected include 2009-2015 Volkswagen Jettas, Beetles, Golfs, Passats, and Audi A3s. 

Volkswagen will be granted a grace period to bring the vehicles into compliance, the EPA told the Monitor in the following emailed statement:

Manufacturers are given a reasonable amount of time to develop a plan to complete the repairs, including both the repair procedure and manufacture of any needed parts. Depending on the complexity of the repair and the lead time needed to obtain the necessary components, it could take up to one year to identify corrective actions, develop a recall plan, and issue recall notices.

The violation and investigation belie a growing trend in more aggressive environmental enforcement from federal regulators. In November 2014, the administration announced its largest ever penalty for a violation of the Clean Air Act on Korean automakers Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors. The fine involved a $300 million settlement for overstating vehicle fuel-economy standards on more than 1 million cars.

According to The New York Times, analysts say the crackdown is meant to send a clear message to automakers that circumventing federal rules will not be tolerated.

California, the EPA, and the Justice Department are working together on the investigation.

“Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health. Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. EPA will continue to investigate these very serious violations,” Ms. Giles told the Times.

This report includes material from Reuters.

[Editor's note: This story and headline have been updated to clarify that Volkswagen will be given time to bring vehicles into compliance and to include a statement from the Environmental Protection Agency.]

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