The suit potentially exposes VW to billions of dollars in penalties for clean air violations. The civil complaint against the German automaker, filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in US District Court in Detroit, alleges the company illegally installed software designed to make its "clean diesel" engines pass federal emissions standards while undergoing laboratory testing. The vehicles then switched off those measures in real-world driving conditions, spewing harmful gases at up to 40 times what is allowed under federal environmental standards. Here's what we learned based on reading the lawsuit. You can read it for yourself here (PDF) or embedded below. We did and pulled out some of the more illuminating quotes.
The basic gist of the suit (see page 8 in the file below) is that the EPA has the right to issue Certificates of Conformity (COC) and an automaker can't sell vehicles in the US without a COC. When an automaker applies for a COC, it's supposed to declare any "auxiliary emission control devices." Guess what VW didn't do? Oh, and, "Motor vehicles equipped with defeat devices cannot be certified" (pg 10).
The result, the DOJ says (again, page 8), is that higher-than-allowed levels of NOx were spewed into the air. The suit says that:
There are two types of engines involved here, the 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesels used in Audi, Porsche, and VW vehicles. There were approximately 500,000 of the 2.0-liter diesels were sold in the US, 80,000 of the 3.0-liter vehicles.
NOx is a family of highly reactive gases that play a major role in the atmospheric reactions with volatile organic compounds that produce ozone in the atmosphere. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. Breathing ozone can also worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, and can lead to premature death. Children are at greatest risk of experiencing negative health impacts from exposure to ozone. Additionally, recent scientific studies indicate that the direct health effects of NOx are worse than previously understood, including respiratory problems, damage to lung tissue, and premature death.
2014: The first hints of a problem
The vehicles that gave away VW's secret were a 2012 Jetta and 2013 Passat. These were the vehicles that the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines & Emissions at West Virginia University and the California Air Resources Board were testing in May 2014 and, "found on-road NOx emissions from two 2.0L VW light duty diesel vehicles ... were significantly higher than the applicable emission standards established by EPA regulations" (page 17). Starting in May 2014, CARB and the EPA then went to VW with questions about the results. In October 2014, VW responded that the higher-than-expected numbers, "were attributable to various yet-to-be-identified technical issues with the after treatment emission control systems and in-use conditions not represented by the FTP" (page 17). The FTP is the federal test procedure, or how the EPA determines a vehicle's emissions. VW said it could tweak the software to get the NOx emissions down to acceptable levels. Because of this statement and other actions by the automaker, the government agencies that were trying to get to the bottom of the situation, "were impeded and obstructed by material omissions and misleading information provided by VW entities" (page 18).
The DOJ is seeking huge damages for each of the 580,000 illegal vehicles, since each one is a separate violation. Cars sold before January 13, 2009 could be fined up to $2,750 per defeat device and up to $32,500 twice per car for violating two different sections of the Clean Air Act. For cars sold on or after that date, the numbers are even higher ($3,750 for the defeat devices and $37,500 per car for the other violations). In other words, we're talking perhaps $18 billion here.
The AP contributed to this report.