AUTOS

Calif. planning 'dual-track' recall and enforcement against Volkswagen

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Regulators here are planning "major enforcement action" against Volkswagen AG for skirting emissions standards, the head of the state's air agency said yesterday.

"We're in the midst of an investigation which is going to be leading to a whole series of actions," Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said on the sidelines of an agency board hearing.

U.S. EPA and state regulators accused Volkswagen last Friday of installing software in about half a million cars designed to pass federal emissions tests but release higher-than-acceptable levels in everyday driving situations. The software was installed in 482,000 diesel cars sold since 2008 in the United States, though VW has said about 11 million cars with diesel engines globally were equipped with the algorithms.

CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned Wednesday, although he said he was not personally aware of any wrongdoing (ClimateWire, Sept. 24).

U.S. EPA has not yet issued a recall of the cars. California, as the only state that has the legal ability to go further than the federal government in setting vehicular emissions standards due to its severe regional air pollution, conducts its own emissions testing and helped uncover the violations.

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The Air Resources Board's testing revealed that a voluntary recall in December 2014 did not reduce emissions as intended and that technical issues were not the culprit, EPA said in its announcement last week.

"Right now we're organizing ourselves for major enforcement action, including the control of documents and making sure we know everybody who's potentially subject to being deposed in litigation and that sort of thing," Nichols said.

The software allowed VW cars to activate emission controls during emission tests but during normal use to release up to 40 times the permitted amount of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which help generate nitrogen dioxide -- low-hanging ozone that blankets cities -- and particulate matter, which causes breathing issues and is linked to millions of early deaths (ClimateWire, Sept. 21).

Probing an automotive mystery story

ARB officials wouldn't say when a recall might occur, but said it would be "as soon as possible" and that the 15 other states that have adopted California's vehicle emissions standards -- including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania -- would follow suit.

"We're going to engage under our own authority," agency spokesman Stanley Young said. "EPA will engage in a parallel process. We will coordinate. The [Clean Air Act Section] 177 states will follow our lead in terms of that."

"Our top priority is to make sure that these cars are in compliance," Young said. "That will obviously involve at some point a recall. VW has to demonstrate to us what they're going to do and that it is effective. It's a dual-track process. We are pursuing enforcement."

Nichols also said she saw the need to re-examine and possibly coordinate vehicle emissions testing internationally.

"There's been for years discussion about aligning the testing and procedures of the U.S. and Europe and the emerging markets in China and India," she said. "Some countries use an old, outdated version of our testing or the E.U.'s testing."

Nichols said it should be relatively easy to fix the software to make the cars control their nitrogen oxide emissions in all conditions.

"They have to reprogram the software and get rid of the defeat device, which is a set of instructions; that part is not really difficult," she said. "You still have to implement it; [you've] got to get people to bring their cars in and you've got to get the work done, so it's not going to happen instantaneously, but certainly we know how to do that."

Still unclear is whether controlling NOx emissions will reduce the cars' gas mileage, as well as what motivated Volkswagen to write the software workaround.

"People are really trying to understand what the total motivation here was because it affected a number of different models," Nichols said.

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