The Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to the German automaker, saying the company's software broke the law by violating two provisions in the Clean Air Act. Circumventing the standards meant affected cars emitted as much as 40 times the allowable level of certain pollutants.
Both the EPA and California Air Resources Board have launched investigations. In its notice of violations, the EPA said Volkswagen officials admitted to installing and concealing what they call a "defeat device," which was designed to detect when the cars were undergoing official emissions tests – and only turn on emissions controls during that time.
"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 Richard Corey, executive officer of CARB.
The allegations cover approximately 482,000 vehicles sold in the United States over the past seven years. Cars involved include diesel versions of the Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3 and Golf manufactured between the 2009 and 2015 model years. Passats manufactured for the 2014 and 2015 model years are also included. Federal officials note there is no safety danger to motorists, but the cars will be recalled for repairs.
If true, Volkswagen faces a fine that could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- likely higher than the $300 million charge the EPA levied last November at Hyundai and Kia for exaggerating the fuel-economy in several models. The charges also put a tremendous dent into the company's plans to increase sales of its "Clean Diesel" vehicles in North America. In a written statement, Volkswagen Group of America acknowledged it had received the notices from the EPA and CARB. "VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time," it said.
Federal officials said the defeat-device software was uncovered during an independent analysis by researchers at West Virginia University, who in working with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization, raised questions about emissions levels.
Earlier this month, EPA and CARB say they demanded explanations for the identified problem, and Volkswagen admitted the cars contained the defeat devices. In its Notice Of Violation, EPA officials described the software as a "sophisticated algorithm" that could detect when a car was undergoing official emissions testing, but would then "greatly reduce" the effectiveness of pollution-control devices during other normal driving situations.
"Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules."