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Fiat Chrysler, in settlement talks with US, is under more pressure

As growing evidence points to the carmaker's use of illegal software to evade emissions tests

Jack Ewing  |  Frankfurt 

Fiat Chrysler, in settlement talks with US, is under more pressure

Automobiles, one of the world's biggest carmakers, said on Thursday that it was in talks with the Department of Justice to settle an investigation into diesel deception, as growing evidence points to the carmaker's use of illegal software to evade emissions tests.

The settlement talks add to the pressure on at a time of meager profitability.

The German carmaker Volkswagen, which faced a similar scandal, has been hit with billions of dollars of settlements and fines, and seen several executives investigated or charged. Though Fiat Chrysler's financial damage is unlikely to be as costly as Volkswagen's, the emissions cheating, if proved, could still be expensive.

The investigation is following much the same path. In January, the accused the carmaker of violating clean air rules in about 100,000 Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles. The Justice Department has since been looking into the matter. Now, a new academic study is lending credence to the claims.

Researchers from the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, Germany, and the University of California, San Diego, said they found evidence of a so-called defeat device in a diesel Fiat 500X, a compact SUV sold in Europe. Software in the engine's computer reduced pollution controls 26 minutes after the car was started, according to the study. A standard emissions test procedure lasts a little less than 26 minutes. declined to comment on allegations of cheating in the 500X. The authors, who are professors and graduate students, provided The New York Times and several other news organizations with advance copies of the study, which is scheduled to be published next week.

The company said in a statement that it was in talks with the Justice Department and "is seeking a fair and equitable resolution to this matter." But also said it would defend itself "against any claims that the company deliberately installed defeat devices to cheat emissions tests." The term "defeat device" refers to software installed on vehicles to allow them to deliberately evade pollution standards by detecting when a car is being tested in a laboratory for its emissions levels.

Volkswagen's use of such illegal software in 600,000 Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche diesel cars sold in the United States, out of 11 million fitted with the device worldwide, has caused it enormous problems.

Six employees have been charged in the United States over the deception and another has pleaded guilty while Volkswagen's chief executive is being investigated by German prosecutors. The company has already agreed to pay criminal and civil penalties of $4.3 billion under the terms of a plea agreement with American authorities. But, other are also under scrutiny.

Daimler, the maker of Mercedes cars, has disclosed that the Justice Department is investigating emissions of its diesel vehicles in the United States and that prosecutors in Stuttgart, Germany, have opened a criminal investigation. 

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