By Glynn Wilson –
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The German automaker Volkswagen has admitted to cheating on emissions tests and agreed to pay more than $15.3 billion in a settlement with U.S. regulators for decieving customers and causing pollution from its diesel vehicles, according to a release just out from the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In two related settlements, one with the United States and the State of California, and one with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, German automaker Volkswagen AG and related entities have agreed to spend up to $14.7 billion to settle allegations of cheating emissions tests and deceiving customers.
In addition, Volkswagen will offer consumers a buyback and lease termination for nearly 500,000 model year 2009-2015 2.0 liter diesel vehicles sold or leased in the U.S., and spend up to $10.03 billion to compensate consumers under the program. The companies will also spend $4.7 billion to mitigate the pollution from these cars and invest in green vehicle technology.
The settlements partially resolve allegations by the EPA, the California Attorney General’s Office and the California Air Resources Board under the Clean Air Act, California Health and Safety Code, and California’s Unfair Competition laws, relating to the vehicles’ use of “defeat devices” to cheat emissions tests. The settlements also resolve claims by the FTC that Volkswagen violated the FTC Act through the deceptive and unfair advertising and sale of its “clean diesel” vehicles.
The settlements do not resolve pending claims for civil penalties or any claims concerning 3.0 liter diesel vehicles. Nor do they address any potential criminal liability.
The affected vehicles include 2009 through 2015 Volkswagen TDI diesel models of Jettas, Passats, Golfs and Beetles as well as the TDI Audi A3.
“Today’s settlement restores clean air protections that Volkswagen so blatantly violated,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in the announcement Monday. “And it secures billions of dollars in investments to make our air and our auto industry even cleaner for generations of Americans to come. This agreement shows that EPA is committed to upholding standards to protect public health, enforce the law, and to find innovative ways to protect clean air.”
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said that by duping the regulators, Volkswagen “turned nearly half a million American drivers into unwitting accomplices in an unprecedented assault on our atmosphere.
“This partial settlement marks a significant first step towards holding Volkswagen accountable for what was a breach of its legal duties and a breach of the public’s trust. And while this announcement is an important step forward, let me be clear, it is by no means the last,” Yates said. “We will continue to follow the facts wherever they go.”
FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said the announcement shows the high cost of violating consumer protection and environmental laws.
“Just as importantly, consumers who were cheated by Volkswagen’s deceptive advertising campaign will be able to get full and fair compensation, not only for the lost or diminished value of their car but also for the other harms that VW caused them,” Ramirez said.
According to the civil complaint against Volkswagen filed by the Justice Department on behalf of EPA on January 4, 2016, Volkswagen allegedly equipped its 2.0 liter diesel vehicles with illegal software that detects when the car is being tested for compliance with EPA or California emissions standards and turns on full emissions controls only during that testing process. During normal driving conditions, the software renders certain emission control systems inoperative, greatly increasing emissions.
This is known as a “defeat device,” which when used, results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory, but emit harmful NOx at levels up to 40 times EPA-compliant levels during normal on-road driving conditions. The Clean Air Act requires manufacturers to certify to EPA that vehicles will meet federal emission standards. Vehicles with defeat devices cannot be certified.
The FTC sued Volkswagen in March, charging that the company deceived consumers with the advertising campaign it used to promote its supposedly “clean diesel” VWs and Audis, which falsely claimed that the cars were low-emission, “environmentally friendly,” met emissions standards and would maintain a high resale value.
The settlements use the authorities of both the EPA and the FTC as part of a coordinated plan that gets the high-polluting VW diesels off the road, makes the environment whole, compensates consumers and requires Volkswagen to offer owners of any affected vehicle the option to have the company buy back the car and to offer lessees a lease cancellation at no cost.
Volkswagen may also propose an emissions modification plan to EPA and CARB, and if approved, may also offer owners and lessees the option of having their vehicles modified to substantially reduce emissions in lieu of a buyback. Under the U.S./California settlement, Volkswagen must achieve an overall recall rate of at least 85 percent of affected 2.0 liter vehicles under these programs or pay additional sums into the mitigation trust fund. The FTC order requires Volkswagen to compensate consumers who elect either of these options.
Volkswagen must set aside and could spend up to $10.03 billion to pay consumers in connection with the buy back, lease termination, and emissions modification compensation program. The program has different potential options and provisions for affected Volkswagen diesel owners depending on their circumstances.
Buyback option: Volkswagen must offer to buy back any affected 2.0 liter vehicle at their retail value as of September 2015 — just prior to the public disclosure of the emissions issue. Consumers who choose the buyback option will receive between $12,500 and $44,000, depending on their car’s model, year, mileage, and trim of the car, as well as the region of the country where it was purchased.
In addition, because a straight buyback will not fully compensate consumers who owe more than their car is worth due to rapid depreciation, the FTC order provides these consumers with an option to have their loans forgiven by Volkswagen. Consumers who have third party loans have the option of having Volkswagen pay off those loans, up to 130 percent of the amount a consumer would be entitled to under the buyback (e.g., if the consumer is entitled to a $20,000 buyback, VW would pay off his/her loans up to a cap of $26,000).
EPA-approved modification to vehicle emissions system: The settlements also allow Volkswagen to apply to EPA and CARB for approval of an emissions modification on the affected vehicles, and, if approved, to offer consumers the option of keeping their cars and having them modified to comply with emissions standards. Under this option in accordance with the FTC order, consumers would also receive money from Volkswagen to redress the harm caused by VW’s deceptive advertising.
Consumers who leased the affected cars will have the option of terminating their leases (with no termination fee) or having their vehicles modified if a modification becomes available. In either case, under the FTC order, these consumers also will receive additional compensation from Volkswagen for the harm caused by VW’s deceptive advertising. Consumers who sold their TDI vehicles after the VW defeat device issue became public may be eligible for partial compensation, which will be split between them and the consumers who purchased the cars from them as set forth in the FTC order.
Eligible consumers will receive notice from VW after the orders are entered by the court this fall. Consumers will be able to see if they are eligible for compensation and if so, what options are available to them, at VWCourtSettlement.com and AudiCourtSettlement.com. They will also be able to use these websites to make claims, sign up for appointments at their local Volkswagen or Audi dealers and receive updates. Consumer payments will not be available until the settlements take effect if and when approved by the court, which may be as early as October 2016.
Emissions Reduction Program: The settlement of the company’s Clean Air Act violations also requires Volkswagen to pay $2.7 billion to fund projects across the country that will reduce emissions of NOx where the 2.0 liter vehicles were, are or will be operated. Volkswagen will place the funds into a mitigation trust over three years, which will be administered by an independent trustee. Beneficiaries, which may include states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and Indian tribes, may obtain funds for designated NOx reduction projects upon application to the Trustee. Funding for the designated projects is expected to fully mitigate the NOx these 2.0 liter vehicles have and will emit in excess of EPA and California standards.
The emissions reduction program will help reduce NOx pollution that contributes to the formation of harmful smog and soot, exposure to which is linked to a number of respiratory- and cardiovascular-related health effects as well as premature death. Children, older adults, people who are active outdoors (including outdoor workers), and people with heart or lung disease are particularly at risk for health effects related to smog or soot exposure. NO2 formed by NOx emissions can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, and may also contribute to asthma development in children.
Zero Emissions Technology Investments: The Clean Air Act settlement also requires VW to invest $2 billion toward improving infrastructure, access and education to support and advance zero emission vehicles. The investments will be made over 10 years, with $1.2 billion directed toward a national EPA-approved investment plan and $800 million directed toward a California-specific investment plan that will be approved by CARB. As part of developing the national plan, Volkswagen will solicit and consider input from interested states, cities, Indian tribes and federal agencies. This investment is intended to address the adverse environmental impacts from consumers’ purchases of the 2.0 liter vehicles, which the governments contend were purchased under the mistaken belief that they were lower emitting vehicles.
FTC’s Injunctive Relief: The FTC settlement includes injunctive provisions to protect consumers from deceptive claims in the future. These provisions prohibit Volkswagen from making any misrepresentations that would deceive consumers about the environmental benefits or value of its vehicles or services, and the order specifically bans VW from employing any device that could be used to cheat on emissions tests.
The provisions of the U.S./California settlement are contained in a proposed consent decree filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, as part of the ongoing multi-district litigation, and will be subject to public comment period of 30 days, which will be announced in the Federal Register in the coming days. The provisions of the FTC settlement are contained in a proposed Stipulated Final Federal Court Order filed today in the same court.
Consumers can view the consent decree here.
For more information from EPA, there is a special web page for the settlement agreement.
© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.