Volkswagen and Audi used a defeat device so that about 482,000 of its 2.0-liter turbodiesel-equipped cars would meet Clean Air Act standards for nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency alleged on Friday. The EPA issued a notice of violation to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America that could lead to a recall of the cars, which include the 2009-15 Volkswagen Golf, Jetta and Beetle, 2014-15 VW Passat and 2009-15 Audi A3.
VW Group faces potential fines of up to $18 billion for the approximately 482,000 cars sold with the 2.0-liter TDI turbocharged four-cylinder diesel, based on a per-car maximum fine of $35,500. So far, EPA has not sought an injunction to stop the sale of 2015 TDI models, though the agency adds that “it is incumbent upon Volkswagen to initiate the process that will fix the cars’ emissions systems.”
“Every automaker has to meet the same standard,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air & Radiation. “These cars are up to 90 percent cleaner because of the standard.”
Owners of the 482,000 cars do not have to take action until receiving a recall notice, and the cars are safe and legal to operate in the meantime, the EPA added.
The investigation began when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) “was engaged in dialogue with our European counterparts concerning high in use emissions from light duty diesels,” CARB, which has its own testing lab, said in a letter to VW Group of America’s legal counsel. “CARB deployed a number of efforts using portable measurement systems and other approaches to increase our understanding for the California fleet. In 2014, the International Council for Clean Transportation and West Virginia University identified through their test program, and brought to CARB’s and [EPA’s] attention, concerns of elevated NOx emissions over real world driving.”
“It’s no secret that California has unique challenges when it comes to air quality,” CARB board executive officer Richard Corey said in a press conference call with EPA officials Friday. NOx “cooks ozone.” It can cause asthma and other illnesses, the EPA’s McCabe said.
Corey said the European agency tipped off CARB about the problem, and that VW has admitted a “defect.”
“This appears to be a very serious violation,” he added.
VW Group of America acknowledged the investigation in a statement released Friday. “VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time,” the company said through a spokesman.
Corey declined to comment on the potential motives of installing a “kill switch” in VW and Audi diesels, though potentially the diesels run more smoothly and quickly, and achieve higher fuel efficiency, with NOx controls turned off.
McCabe, of the EPA, said the controls cut 90 percent of NOx particulate emissions when operating. VW’s “kill-switch” software, the EPA alleges, can determine whether or not a car is being tested by the steering wheel angle, the vehicle’s speed and by barometric pressure, said Cynthia Giles, the agency’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
What does this mean for you and for VW? Volkswagen and General Motors, with the Chevrolet Cruze and Colorado, and GMC Canyon, and Chrysler with the Ram 1500 pickup are the only non-premium brands that offer diesel engine options in the U.S. For VW, the diesel take-rate has reached up to 25 percent of U.S. sales in a given month, though recently, low gasoline and diesel fuel prices here have blunted such sales. This investigation, and a potential recall and fine for VW certainly will threaten the future of “clean diesel” passenger car sales in the United States.