Volkswagen was directed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a recall of almost 500,000 of its vehicles. The EPA alleges they were programmed with a “defeat device” that caused full emissions controls to be turned on only when tests were being performed on the car. According to the EPA, during normal driving, when the full controls are turned off, the Volkswagen vehicles pollute more intensely than the automaker says they do, and can emit up to 40 times the permitted amount of pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
Cynthia Giles, the assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance for the EPA, described the automaker’s actions as a “threat to public health.” Officials from the EPA issued Volkswagen a notice of violation, and stated that the company acknowledged that it had used a defeat device. The recall applies to 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audis, from model years 2009 to 2015.
The software was created with the intention of hiding the car’s emission of the pollutant, nitrogen oxide, which is partly responsible for the production of ozone and smog. The pollutants are associated with a number of health issues, such as asthma attacks, other respiratory illnesses, and premature death.
Specialists in automotive technology stated that turning off the pollution controls on a car fueled by diesel can result in improved performance, including better torque and acceleration. But when the pollution controls are operating, there’s a concession between performance and emissions, according to Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation. Kodjak described this behavior as “cutting corners.”
The difference between Volkswagen’s emissions during normal driving and testing in laboratories was first discovered by Kodjak’s group when it was performing research on diesel vehicles. They informed the EPA, which performed additional tests on the cars, and eventually detected the defeat device software.
Criminal Sanctions Are Ahead
California has given Volkswagen a separate notice of violation, and an investigation into the accusations is being conducted by officials in California, the Justice Department, and the EPA. EPA representatives said that throughout next year, owners of vehicles to which the recall applies, will receive recall notices from Volkswagen as well as advice regarding ways to have the vehicles repaired free of charge. Approximately 482,000 diesel passenger cars that were sold in the U.S. since 2009 have been affected by the recall, and they include the Volkswagen Jetta from model years 2009-2015, the Beetle from model years 2009-2015, the Golf from model years 2009-2015, the Passat from model years 2009-2015, and the Audi A3 from model years 2009-2015.
As a result of the probe by the Department of Justice, Volkswagen could face fines or penalties under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. The company could be fined up to $37,500 for each vehicle that is recalled for a total penalty of $18 billion.
The extent of the violations committed in this case may be far worse than those of other automakers because the company seems to have designed a system that had as its objective the deception of consumers and government. And if that is determined to be true, then there will be criminal charges.
If Volkswagen did set out to mislead consumers and the government by creating the defeat device software that permitted its vehicles to produce extremely unhealthy amounts of pollutants, then criminal charges should be brought against the company. Recalls and fines can only serve as mild deterrents, and will not have the same effect as criminal prosecution. Prosecution will strike fear into the minds of other automakers, who will be less likely to engage in similar deceptive and illegal behavior.
Authored by Roxanne Minott, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law