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Detroit — The U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil complaint against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV over allegations of emissions cheating on more than 100,000 diesel vehicles, an outcome the automaker had hoped to avoid by offering software updates on previously sold vehicles.

Penalties for violating federal air pollution laws could be as high as $4.6 billion.

Charges center on investigators’ belief that FCA used at least eight auxiliary emission-control devices on diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokees and Ram 1500 pickups that produced inaccurate readings of smog-causing nitrogen oxides. Those inaccurate readings, all tied to 103,828 vehicles equipped with EcoDiesel V-6 engines, are alleged to violate the Clean Air Act. Potential fines of up to $44,539 per vehicle could be levied.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Tuesday charges that one or more undisclosed software features bypass or defeat the vehicles’ emission control systems, causing them to emit substantially higher levels nitrogen oxides during certain normal real-world driving conditions than during federal emission tests. Investigators have said the automaker hasn’t been able to explain the features fully.

Automakers can legally program cars to deactivate pollution-control systems in certain conditions, but regulators require companies to disclose that when they apply for certificates that are required to sell cars in the U.S. The complaint also indicated each affected vehicle differed from “the specifications provided to EPA in the certification applications, and thus the cars are uncertified, in violation of the Clean Air Act.”

Italian diesel engine manufacturer VM Motori and VM North America Inc. is also named in the suit.

FCA officials have contended their vehicles meet federal regulations and on Tuesday they expressed “disappointment” that the Department of Justice had chosen to file the lawsuit. The automaker had hoped to avoid legal action by offering modifications on the previously sold Jeep Grand Cherokees and Ram 1500 pickups. On Friday in a filing, the company said its new vehicles would feature “updated emissions software calibrations.”

FCA’s stock price fell 4.1 percent by the close of trading Tuesday.

Emissions-cheating became an issue in late 2015 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged that Volkswagen AG rigged diesel cars over a six-year period. In March, company officials pleaded guilty to charges including fraud and obstruction of justice in a scandal that cost Volkswagen more than $20 billion in the U.S. alone.

Since January, when federal investigators announced FCA’s alleged violations, company officials have labored to differentiate their situation from Volkswagen’s. Late that month, CEO Sergio Marchionne denied his company’s vehicles had any illegal software or defeat devices. Comparisons between FCA and Volkswagen’s situations was “absolute nonsense,” he said.

Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for automotive research form AutoPacific, agreed. “I don’t think we’re talking apples-to-apples with this situation,” he said Tuesday. “If we were, I think (DOJ) would have issued a stop-sale on all of the (FCA) diesels at dealerships.”

Responding to the action Tuesday, FCA said in a statement, “As FCA US announced last week, it has developed updated emissions software calibrations that it believes address the concerns of EPA ... and has now formally filed for diesel vehicle emissions certification with the regulators for its 2017 model-year ... Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 diesel vehicles.

“Subject to the permission of EPA ... FCA US intends to install the same modified emissions software in 2014-2016 MY Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 diesel vehicles. FCA US believes this will address the agencies’ concerns regarding the emissions software calibrations in those vehicles.”

The company said it expects that the installation of these updated software calibrations will improve the 2014-16 vehicles’ emissions performance and does not anticipate they will hurt performance or fuel efficiency. FCA said it “remains committed to working cooperatively with EPA and CARB to resolve the agencies’ concerns quickly and amicably.”

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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