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VW Has Been Ordered to Recall Almost Half-Million Cars Over Deceptive Algorithm

A VW worker dusts the new VW Jetta during the 89th European Motorshow at Brussels' Expo, Belgium, Friday Jan. 14, 2011.

A VW worker dusts the new VW Jetta during the 89th European Motorshow at Brussels' Expo, Belgium, Friday Jan. 14, 2011. // Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP File Photo

Volkswagen has been ordered to recall (paywall) some 482,000 diesel vehicles for allegedly installing software designed to undermine emissions inspections.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the company a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act earlier today (Sept. 18). It affects certain models released from 2009 to 2015.

The software had a sophisticated algorithm that detected when cars were being emissions tested, and turned on full emission controls then and then only. At all other times during normal driving, a switch would go off that activated a separate “road calibration” that made emission controls less effective and increased emissions of the smog producing pollutant nitrogen oxide “by a factor of 10 to 40 times above the EPA compliant levels,” depending on whether someone was driving in the city or highway.

It could end up being a very expensive deception. The company could be subject to a penalty of $37,500 for every violation, according to the notice. The largest ever penalty (paywall) for a similar violation by an automaker was a combined $300 million fine for Hyundai and Kia for overstating fuel-economy standards.

“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,” Volkswagen said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “VW is cooperating with the investigation; we are unable to comment further at this time.”

The issue came to light initially after a study from researchers in West Virginia found that a 2012 Jetta and a 2013 Passat had substantially higher than reported emissions in use. VW claimed technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions initially, and conducted a voluntary recall. But follow-up testing by the California Air Resources Board and the EPA revealed that the claimed technical issues couldn’t explain what was happening so consistently.

After the EPA and CARB made it clear that they would not certify VW’s 2016 diesel vehicles unless the company could explain the anomaly and make sure it wouldn’t reoccur, it admitted to having installed the defeat devices.

The affected vehicles, all of which have 2.0 liter diesel engines, include the Jetta from 2009 to 2015, the Audi A3 from 2012 to 2015, and the VW Golf, Passat and Beetle from the same period.

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