EPA tells Volkswagen to fix nearly half a million cars

Last Updated Sep 18, 2015 5:49 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said Volkswagen sold nearly half a million diesel cars with software intentionally designed to bypass standards for air pollution.

The allegations, which involve an estimated 482,000 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi diesel passenger cars sold in the United States since 2009, could result in up to $18 billion in fines, or $37,500 for each vehicle, Cynthia Giles, the agency's assistant administrator for enforcement, told a conference call with journalists.

"We intend to hold VW responsible -- there is no recall in effect now," Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA's office of air and radiation, said on the call.

The software was created to hide the cars' emissions of the pollutant nitrogen oxide, which contribute to ozone and smog, both of which are tied to health troubles including asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases. "Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health," Giles said in a statement.

California is also investigating the claims.

"This is the result of dogged determination by some very smart scientists and engineers to do what is essentially detective work to painstakingly reveal there was this hidden software," said Stanley Young, communications director at the California Air Resources Board (CARB). "We began having discussions with Volkswagen about why this was happening, and eventually they did admit to what is known as a defeat device."

The allegations against Volkswagen were triggered by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which was looking at differences in emissions by gasoline and diesel-powered cars in Europe and then tested the performance of Volkswagen-made diesels in the U.S.

Research conducted by the ICCT in conjunction with the University of West Virginia found that Volkswagen's diesel cars performed well in U.S. emission-test scenarios but not in the real world. "It wasn't just a small increase, but significant -- up to 35 times above the emissions of the certification standards, which led us to bring it to the attention of California and the EPA," Drew Kodjak, the ICCT's executive director, said.

"It is incumbent upon Volkswagen to initiate the process that will fix the cars' emissions systems," the EPA said in a press release. "Car owners should know that although these vehicles have emissions exceeding standards, these violations do not present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive and resell. Owners of cars of these models and years do not need to take any action at this time."

According to the EPA, the affected diesel models are:

  • Jetta (Model Years 2009 - 2015)
  • Beetle (Model Years 2009 - 2015)
  • Audi A3 (Model Years 2009 - 2015)
  • Golf (Model Years 2009 - 2015)
  • Passat (Model Years 2014-2015)

"VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time," Jeannine Ginivan, a spokesperson for Volkswagen emailed.