WASHINGTON -- Volkswagen’s software designed to hoodwink environmental regulators was hardly the first instance of automakers getting busted for running afoul of U.S. emissions rules using so-called defeat devices.
It wasn’t even Volkswagen’s first. In fact, VW is a repeat offender.
General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and American Honda Motor Co. also have had to pay hefty fines and take other steps to resolve their use of defeat devices in the past. Some of the cases stemmed from differing regulatory interpretations or from loopholes that have since been closed.
VW’s deliberate move to game U.S. tests for diesel emissions will likely result in stiff penalties, but the past settlements offer clues about the kinds of tools the EPA and U.S. Justice Department have in their arsenal when handling such cases.
In 1974, Volkswagen agreed to pay $120,000 to settle a complaint filed by the EPA that the company failed to properly disclose the existence of two devices that modified emissions controls on about 25,000 1973 model VWs, according to a Wall Street Journal report and an EPA press release about the case. The settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by VW, the Journal reported. The devices consisted of two temperature-sensing switches that deactivated part of the emissions control systems, the EPA said.
The EPA said at the time that VW failed to disclose the existence of the devices on its 1973 emissions certification applications. VW did disclose them on a 1974 application, which the EPA rejected, and VW agreed to remove the devices.
In 1995, GM agreed to pay nearly $45 million to settle government charges that it put illegal devices in some 470,000 Cadillacs that defeated emissions controls, resulting in the cars spewing 100,000 tons of excess carbon monoxide pollution, the U.S. Justice Department said at the time. The total penalty included an $11 million fine, $8.75 million to be spent on projects to offset the excess emissions and $25 million to recall and retrofit the vehicles -- the first court-ordered vehicle recall for environmental issues.
GM had installed a computer chip on the Cadillacs, including the 1991-95 DeVille and Seville, that made the cars’ 4.9-liter engine operate at a higher idle speed by burning more fuel when drivers used the climate control system. The move helped solve a stalling problem the engines faced when drivers used the climate control, but it increased carbon monoxide emissions.
At the time, the EPA’s test procedures didn’t measure emissions levels with climate control systems turned on, so the chip’s impact on emissions wasn’t measured. GM cooperated with the EPA’s investigation and settled out of court. But the EPA considered the chip to be a defeat device and announced the deal without GM’s participation, a move that blindsided the company, GM officials told Automotive News at the time.
The EPA’s test procedures have since been revised to measure emissions with air conditioning systems turned on. Test changes also could stem from VW’s current debacle. Chris Grundler, head of the EPA’s office that oversees auto emissions, says the agency is reviewing its testing procedures and working on a process to screen for defeat devices similar to the software that VW used to make its cars run cleaner during emissions tests.
In 1998, American Honda and Ford both agreed to settlements worth millions of dollars to resolve defeat-device charges from the EPA.
The EPA alleged at the time that Honda had disabled part of the onboard diagnostic computer that detected engine misfires on 1.6 million Accords, Civics, Preludes, Odysseys and Acuras from the 1996 and 1997 model years, as well as the 1995 Civic, and failed to report it to the EPA when applying for emissions certification.
The misfire monitor checks emissions performance while a vehicle is driven, and disabling it meant the dashboard warning light would not illuminate when emissions controls were malfunctioning. When that happens, drivers would be unaware that their vehicles needed service, resulting in possible excess emissions, the EPA said then.
Honda agreed to settle the charges by extending the emissions warranty for the cars to 14 years or 150,000 miles, plus other steps, resulting in at least $250 million in costs, the EPA said. Honda also agreed to pay $12.6 million in fines and $4.5 million on pollution reducing projects. The EPA commended Honda for its cooperation during the agency’s investigation.
Ford spent $7.8 million after the EPA alleged the automaker installed a device to defeat the emissions control system on 60,000 1997 Econoline vans. According to the EPA, Ford had installed software in the vans that boosted fuel economy but also increased nitrogen oxide emissions above levels permitted by the Clean Air Act.
Ford agreed to remove the software through service campaigns and a recall, a $1.3 million cost. It also agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine, purchase nitrogen oxide credits worth an estimated $2.5 million and spend $1.5 million on pollution reduction projects.