WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday ordered Volkswagen to recall nearly a half million cars from the road, saying the German automaker used software intentionally designed to circumvent environmental standards for reducing smog.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the company a notice of violation and accused the company of breaking the law by installing software known as a “defeat device” in 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from model years 2009-15. The device is programmed to detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and to only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. Those controls are turned off during normal driving situations, when the vehicles pollute far more heavily than reported by the manufacturer, the E.P.A. said.
“Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” said Cynthia Giles, the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, E.P.A. is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. E.P.A. will continue to investigate these very serious violations.”
The software was designed to conceal the cars’ emissions of the pollutant nitrogen oxide, which contributes to the creation of ozone and smog. The pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases.
The state of California has issued a separate notice of violation to the company. California, the E.P.A. and the Justice Department are working together on an investigation of the allegations.
The allegations cover roughly 482,000 diesel passenger cars sold in the United States since 2009.
Affected diesel models include the Volkswagen Jetta (model years 2009-15), Volkswagen Beetle (model years 2009–15), Audi A3 (model years 2009–15), Volkswagen Golf (model years 2009–15) and Volkswagen Passat (model years 2014-15).
The notice of violation is part of a broader, more aggressive enforcement effort by federal environmental regulators on the auto industry. Analysts said it was meant to send a clear message to automakers that they will be harshly treated for compromising federal rules.
It follows a November 2014 announcement of the administration’s largest-ever penalty for a violation of the Clean Air Act, in which the government fined the Korean automakers Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors a combined $300 million as part of a settlement for overstating vehicle fuel-economy standards on 1.2 million cars.
“They want to make it clear that they’re going to crack down on cheaters,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “They’re cheating not only car buyers but the breathing public. They want to lay down the law, enforce the law, and show they’re not going to tolerate cheaters. The laws and regulation are only as good as the enforcement.”