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The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Volkswagen to recall nearly half a million diesel-powered cars, alleging that the vehicles contain software that enables them to circumvent the agency’s emission standards.

According to the EPA, the German automaker has installed a “defeat device” in its Volkswagen and Audi diesel models that turns off emissions controls when the vehicles are in motion. In fact, the control system only becomes fully activated when it detects that the vehicle is undergoing an emissions test. This illegal software could be enabling the vehicles to emit as much as 40 times the pollution allowed under the EPA’s Clean Air Act.

Promotional image of the 2015 VW Jetta, one of the recalled models. (Photo: Volkswagen)

Promotional image of the 2015 VW Jetta, one of the recalled models. (Photo: Volkswagen)

Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, told The New York Times that the software enables diesel-powered vehicles to gain better torque and acceleration at the cost of “cutting corners” (i.e., higher emissions). According to NYT, it was Kodjak’s research group “that first detected the discrepancy between Volkswagen’s emissions in testing laboratories and on the road.” The group notified the EPA, which directed Volkswagen to recall approximately 482,000 vehicles after confirming the presence of the defeat device.

“We expected better from Volkswagen,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance.

The affected diesel models include the 2009-15 Volkswagen Jetta, 2009-15 Beetle, 2009-15 Golf, 2014-15 Passat and 2009-15 Audi A3.

As The Verge points out, this is but the latest instance of the EPA cracking down on Clean Air Act violations. Back in November, the agency fined Hyundai and Kia a record $100 million for misrepresenting the greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy of its vehicles.

“They want to make it clear that they’re going to crack down on cheaters,” Frank O’Donnell, president of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said of the agency. “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.”

Owners of the affected vehicles will receive recall notices from Volkswagen over the next year. The state of California – which maintains the strictest emissions standards in the US – has issued a separate notice of violation to the automaker.

Tyson Slocum, director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, told NYT that Volkswagen’s installation of the defeat device is “several steps beyond the violations that we’ve seen from other auto companies. If the software was installed with the willful intent to circumvent the law, “it would merit a heck of a lot more than just a recall and a fine,” added Slocum. “We would see criminal prosecution.”

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