WASHINGTON - The alternative to the clean air deal accepted by American Honda Motor Co. was either a $500 million recall or a protracted court fight.
Honda, which takes pride in its environmental reputation, agreed instead to pay $17.1 million in penalties and to spend an estimated
$250 million over 14 years to limit pollution from 1.6 million vehicles that the government says don't meet federal clean air rules.
If a federal court approves the deal, Honda will continue to fix emissions devices free-of-charge on its 1997 vehicles until 2011.
Honda engineers had set the engine computers to ignore misfires. This allows unburned fuel to escape through the exhaust system without the driver being aware. The computers should alert drivers with a 'check engine' light when misfiring occurs.
Ford also paid a fine of $7.8 million, for tuning 60,000 1997 Econoline vans so they pass emissions tests even though they pollute more than the laws allow.
'These cases were both civil cases, and they release the companies from liability on the civil side. They do not in any way address or foreclose any efforts on the criminal side,' said Assistant US Attorney General Lois Schiffer.
Ford and Honda believe there will be no criminal case, but the government is angry with them.
'These settlements show we are serious about full compliance with the Clean Air Act,' Schiffer said. 'Those who violate the Clean Air Act are putting their bottom line ahead of the public health and the environment. They will be held accountable.'
Bruce Fergusson, attorney for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said, 'The engineers who are designing these cars know what they are doing.'
Honda spokesman Kurt Antonius said his company plans no special advertising campaign to combat damage to its image.
'We'll just keep our nose to the grindstone and develop more clean air vehicles,' he said. 'We had an unfortunate mistake here.'
The failure of Honda's on-board diagnostics system to detect and record minor misfires was discovered by California Air Resources Board employees.
EPA officials became suspicious of Ford's Econoline vans after company officials inquired about the speed at which the agency conducts tests of vehicles for certain emissions.