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VW's California test centre under scrutiny over emissions scandal

Published 06/10/2015

California Air Resources Board spokesman John Swanton explains how a 2013 Volkswagen Passat diesel model is tested for emissions (AP)
California Air Resources Board spokesman John Swanton explains how a 2013 Volkswagen Passat diesel model is tested for emissions (AP)

Questions are swirling around Volkswagen's only test centre in North America, following the German car giant's admission that it rigged diesel vehicle emissions tests in the US.

When Volkswagen opened its gleaming pollution testing centre in Oxnard, about 60 miles north west of Los Angeles , a top executive helped cut the blue ribbon and joined a tour of a lab so advanced that VW would brag the air inside was cleaner than in the surrounding strawberry fields.

Three years later, with VW admitting that it manipulated emissions results in 482,000 US diesel vehicles to make them seem more environmentally friendly, the centre is under a more unwelcome spotlight.

The centre was built with the help of a 10 million-dollar (£6.6m) tax-exempt public bond and opened in 2012.

Volkswagen saw the facility as key to its multi-billion US growth strategy, partly because vehicles would have the selling point of meeting the nation's strictest emissions standards. At the centre, VW runs cars through a battery of tests to check whether they are polluting as little as advertised.

While no evidence has surfaced that Oxnard played a role in the fraud, the test centre is sure to attract interest from government investigators and private lawyers lining up to sue VW.

"That would be one of the top facilities on my list to get inside of, whether through a subpoena or a search warrant," said William Carter, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who specialised in environmental crimes. "You'd want to explore what's there."

Mr Carter said investigators would want to know whether anyone in Oxnard knew about the "defeat devices" that Volkswagen has acknowledged installing on models from 2009 to 2015.

The "device" was a code in engine software that cheated diesel car emissions tests in the US - 11 million engines worldwide contained the software, including eight million in the European Union.

The scandal forced out VW's chief executive and could lead to US fines of 18 billion dollars (£12bn), an avalanche of lawsuits and criminal prosecutions both in America and abroad.

California has launched its own criminal probe, but the state attorney general's office would not say if Oxnard was a focus. A US Justice Department spokesman said prosecutors were working closely with Environmental Protection Agency investigators but declined to say more.

Two Southern California law firms have cited the centre in lawsuits against VW.

"I'm dying to know if they were doing anything in that facility" related to the defeat device, said lawyer Graham LippSmith, who is seeking damages for fraud and negligence in federal court in Los Angeles on behalf of VW diesel owners in California.

Volkswagen declined to answer questions about what it calls Test Centre California, instead providing a fact sheet first distributed at the 2012 opening attended by local dignitaries and VW officials. It denied a tour request and security escorted out a reporter who visited.

California officials who began investigating discrepancies in VW's diesel emissions months ago are familiar with the test centre. The California Air Resources Board, in charge of enforcing the state's tough emissions standards, has probably received test results from the centre but spokesman John Swanton could not be sure and would not say whether they included the 2009 to 2015 diesel models in question.

In recent weeks, agency staff visited Oxnard for ideas about how to upgrade their own aging emissions test center in El Monte, about 80 miles away, according to Mr Swanton. The visit came while state and federal regulators were pressing VW to explain emissions test discrepancies but was not part of the investigation, he said.

The agency has researched other automaker test labs in California for ideas and was interested in the VW facility's top-notch environmental design, which includes rooftop solar panelling that provides a third of its electricity.

And the agency is currently collaborating with VW to test emissions from a diesel research vehicle outside the lab. Air Resources Board engineers have been driving a red VW Golf up and down the coast to Oxnard, taking pollution readings using equipment strapped on to the back. The idea is to test ideas that VW is considering for a possible future diesel model, Mr Swanton said.

Paperwork submitted to the city council in 2010 as part of the approval process for the California Economic Development Authority tax-exempt bond to build the 27 million-dollar (£17.8m) centre said it would include "sophisticated emission-testing equipment" as part of VW's research to develop ultra-low emission vehicles, including diesel. VW came to Oxnard to replace a smaller, older facility nearby.

Civic leaders in Oxnard received a tour in 2012 that focused on how the precision lab assesses engine performance and its impact on emissions, said Steven Kinney, former president of the Economic Development Corporation of Oxnard.

The floors were so clean you could eat off them, he said. He peered into a climate-controlled chamber where engineers could simulate sub-zero temperatures or desert conditions and saw cars undergoing emissions testing on treadmills.

At the Oxnard centre and those like it that other car makers have in Southern California, vehicles would typically be several years old - tested for how they are performing as they age. Testing to certify that a new model meets US and California emissions standards is typically done at a car maker's headquarters.

"They were proud of the fact that the air inside the facility was cleaner than the ambient air," Mr Kinney recalled, but now he said he was left with questions.

"How are they going to react to this? How much are they going to now open up the facility to broader public scrutiny?" he said.

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