Volkswagen accused of using crafty software to dodge rules

By Robin Bravender | 09/18/2015 01:05 PM EDT

This story was updated at 2:15 p.m.

Volkswagen has been manufacturing cars with "sophisticated software" programmed to skirt clean air rules by only turning on full pollution controls when the cars are being tested, government regulators alleged today.

U.S. EPA and California regulators announced that the German automaker is in violation of Clean Air Act rules that prohibit devices used to defeat emissions testing, and vowed to hold the company responsible for its actions.

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"Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health," said Cynthia Giles, who leads EPA’s enforcement and compliance office. EPA and California regulators continue to investigate the "very serious" violations, Giles told reporters today. Meanwhile, she said, regulators wanted to inform the public and put the company on notice.

Volkswagen spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said in a statement that “VW is cooperating with the investigation,” but declined to comment further on the allegations.

According to a violation notice issued by EPA to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America Inc., the automaker installed the illegal software on four-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars from model years 2009 to 2015. The allegations cover about 482,000 cars including the models Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3, Golf and Passat.

The software is programmed to detect when the cars are undergoing emissions testing and to turn on full emission controls only during those tests. During normal operations, EPA said, the emission-control devices are less effective and emit nitrogen oxides at up to 40 times the legal standard.

Nitrogen oxides contribute to ozone and fine particulate pollution, and exposure to those pollutants has been linked to a variety of health effects that "can be serious enough to send people to the hospital," EPA air chief Janet McCabe said today.

Volkswagen could be on the hook for stiff penalties.

"The statute provides for civil penalties … of up to $37,500 per vehicle sold in violation of the Clean Air Act plus additional penalties for other violations and also gives us authority for injunctive relief to remedy violations," Giles said.

With nearly 500,000 cars possibly in violation, that could mean about $18 billion in civil penalties alone.

California’s Air Resources Board has also been investigating the automaker’s alleged dodging of clean air rules.

"Our goal now is to ensure that the affected cars are brought into compliance, 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 Air Resources Board Executive Officer Richard Corey.

EPA and the California agency discovered the software after researchers at West Virginia University and the International Council on Clean Transportation raised questions about emissions levels. In response to questions from EPA and CARB, Volkswagen "admitted that the cars contained defeat devices," the agencies said today.

The affected cars are still safe and legal to drive, EPA assured their owners. The agency has the authority to require Volkswagen to issue a recall if EPA determines that a substantial number of cars don’t meet clean air rules.

"We will hold VW responsible for recalling the affected vehicles to reduce the emissions problem at no cost to consumers," McCabe said. She noted that there is no recall yet in effect.

Click here for EPA’s violation notice.

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