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Volkswagen Under Fire After Emissions Cheating Revealed

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author photo by Doug DeMuro September 2015
  • VW has admitted to using a "defeat device" to pass EPA emissions tests
  • Diesel-powered VW models have been using the devices since at least 2009
  • VW cannot sell new diesel-powered models until it brings the cars into compliance

Volkswagen is taking major criticism after it admitted to using "defeat devices" in order to pass emissions tests carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- an action dubbed "illegal" and "a threat to public health" by the agency.

According to the EPA, the complicated "defeat device" is actually a software program that can tell when a vehicle is being tested for emissions. When the device detects an emissions test, it changes the vehicle's emissions profile so it will pass. Once the car is no longer being tested, it goes back into "normal" mode -- accompanied by a substantial increase in pollution.

Just how much of an increase in pollution? The EPA alleges that, under normal operation, VW vehicles equipped with the defeat device emit a whopping 10 to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than regulations allow. As a result, the EPA -- and California's stricter California Air Resources Board -- has revoked its certification of affected VW models, which means VW will not be able to sell certain new models until it has proven to the EPA that these models can pass its rigorous emissions tests.

That's big news for VW, because a huge number of the brand's models are affected. Specifically, the action affects all VW models that use the brand's 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine, which includes diesel-powered versions of the Beetle, Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta and Passat, along with the A3 from Volkswagen's high-end Audi brand.

And it gets worse, because the issue doesn't only affect new VWs. According to the EPA, the automaker has been using the "defeat devices" since at least 2009 on several models. Nearly 500,000 vehicles reportedly include the device and may need to be recalled in the coming months in order to change their emissions profile to fit U.S. regulations. What's more, the automaker could face potential fines of up to $37,500 per affected vehicle -- a total number that works out to more than $18 billion.

"[We are] deeply sorry for this -- that Volkswagen has broken the trust of our customers and the public here in America," said Volkswagen Group of America President and CEO Michael Horn at an event Monday evening in New York City. " ... We've totally screwed up," he added, noting that "we are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust."

Fortunately, drivers of affected VW vehicles don't have to take any action -- for now. But that may change in the coming weeks, as Volkswagen will likely begin the recall process very swiftly in order to correct the emissions profile on affected vehicles. We'll have more coverage of news about Volkswagen's emission debacle as it develops further.

What it means to you: Don't expect to buy a new diesel-powered VW anytime soon. If you already own one, prepare yourself for a recall -- and a potential loss in performance or fuel economy.

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Volkswagen Under Fire After Emissions Cheating Revealed - Autotrader