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Car Emissions Recalls

Many car owners have come across the term "vehicle recall" in one form or another, whether hearing about a recall on the news or actually receiving a recall notice in the mail. Typically, vehicle recalls are issued over safety concerns that may lead to injury if not repaired. However, recalls can also be issued for reasons other than safety problems, such as when a vehicle fails to meet federal emission standards.

Emissions are the chemical by-products of the internal combustion process that powers modern motor vehicles. They are created in the engine and vented out into the air by the exhaust system. These chemical by-products consist of volatile compounds that create smog and pollute the air. Each year, over 149 million Americans experience unhealthy levels of air pollution. At best, air pollution decreases our overall quality of life, and at worst, it can cause serious health problems. Accordingly, the federal government requires vehicles to meet strict emission guidelines with the goal of keeping the air clean and preserving the environment.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Recalls

Vehicle manufacturers must design and assemble their vehicles to comply with federal emission standards throughout the duration of their use. A federal law known as the "Clean Air Act" gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require manufacturers to recall their vehicles if they fail to meet federal emission standards. In addition, the EPA can require manufacturers to repair vehicles that do not meet emission standards.

At the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, the EPA tests randomly selected vehicles for compliance with emissions standards. If a particular model fails the tests, the EPA will start a discussion with the manufacturer to generate possible solutions. One such solution is a recall of the problematic vehicles.

A recall is the removal of a potentially harmful or otherwise defective product from the market. By law, vehicle manufacturers are required to report any defects that affect a vehicle's emissions system to the EPA. The discovery of a defect usually leads to a manufacturer's voluntary recall to repair the problem. Manufacturers must also disclose any voluntary recalls regarding emissions systems to the EPA. Upon discovering a defect, most manufacturers will voluntarily recall their vehicles in order to avoid possible sanctions, fines, and increased scrutiny from the EPA. However, it is not unheard for a manufacture to drag its feet in addressing the issue, and it is within the EPA's authority to order a manufacturer to issue a recall.

Examples of Emission Related Recalls

Emissions related problems may be related to a system error in the emission control or an issue with the fuel pump or fuel tank. Here are some examples of vehicle recalls issued due to emissions problems:

  • 2001-2003: Toyota Prius - Certain vehicles may have low engine power or fail to start due to carbon deposit build up in the car throttle.
  • 2004-2006: Volkswagen Jetta, Beetle, Golf - Some vehicles have electronic control module (ECM) issues with their software, resulting in excessive emissions in violation of federal standards.
  • 2007-2008: BMW Mini Cooper - Certain Mini Coopers have a faulty catalytic converter, a device the converts toxic pollutants found in gasoline into less toxic by-products. A defective catalytic convertor will likely increase emissions levels.

Tier 3 Vehicle Emission Standards

Currently, passenger vehicles including vans, sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and pick-up trucks are evaluated on Tier 2 Vehicle Emission Standards. Tier 2 paved the way for larger passenger vehicles (i.e. SUVs and pick-up trucks) to be subjected to the same federal emission standards as other passenger vehicles.

Beginning in September of 2017, Tier 3 Vehicle Emission Standards will take effect. Tier 3 will apply even more stringent emission standards to passenger vehicles. In particular, Tier 3 will lower the amount of gasoline sulfur permitted. Sulfur is a natural component of gasoline that can cause air pollution and impair emission controls. Reducing sulfur levels will enhance current emission standards and improve air quality. In addition, exhaust systems will release fewer dangerous by-products.

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