Volkswagen at Center of EPA, California Emissions Investigation

Officials allege that certain VW diesel vehicles were able to circumvent emissions regulations through advanced "cheat device" software.

by / September 18, 2015
The 2015 Audi A3 is one of several vehicles from Volkswagen, Audi and the Volkswagen Group of America that have been using software to circumvent emissions standards. Flickr/niXerKG

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California blasted popular automaker Volkswagen Group of America Friday over allegations the company had intentionally used technology to avoid complying with federal emissions standards.

According to an EPA release issued Friday morning, Volkswagen, Audi and Volkswagen Group of America have been issued a notice of violation for allegedly using software to circumvent emissions standards in diesel vehicles made between 2009 and 2015.

The California Air Resources Board is joining the EPA in an investigation of the situation. The state separately issued an in-use compliance letter to the companies.     

According to the EPA allegations, sophisticated technology installed in the vehicles determined when the vehicles were undergoing emissions testing. The so-called cheat device would supposedly initiate “full emissions controls” during the tests, but not during regular, on-road use. 

“This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard,” according to the release.

Use of such software is considered a cheat device under the Clean Air Act.    

“Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said in the Friday release. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. EPA will continue to investigate these very serious matters.”

The federal environmental agency went on to say that vehicles fitted with emission testing defeat devices could not be certified under federal regulations. 

In a letter issued by CARB Chief of Emission Compliance Annette Hebert on Friday, Sept. 18, the automakers were warned that previous efforts to address non-compliance issues had not been effective.

“Based upon our testing and discussions with VW, CARB has determined that the previous recall did not address the high on-road NOx emissions, and also resulted in the vehicle failing certification standards. Therefore, the recall is deemed ineffective and is deemed unapproved,” the letter reads. “VW must immediately initiate discussions with CARB to determine the appropriate corrective action to rectify the emission non-compliance and return these vehicles to the claimed certified configuration.” 

Jeanine Ginivan, senior manager of corporate communications for Volkswagen Group of America, provided a statement to Government Technology on the situation, but could not elaborate with further comment.

“Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Volkswagen AG and Audi AG received today notice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board of an investigation related to certain emissions compliance matters," she said via email. "VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time."

The automaker may be held liable for civil penalties and injunctive relief for the violations alleged by the agencies. According to the EPA, there may be as many as 482,000 affected vehicles in the United States.

Affected vehicles include: Jetta (model years 2009-2015), Beetle (model years 2009-2015), Audi A3 (model years 2009-2015), Golf (model years 2009-2015) and Passat (model years 2014-2015). 

The EPA said there is no immediate safety danger posed by the vehicles, and added that owners of affected models do not need to take any action at this time.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.