Editor's note: An earlier version of this story attributed the letter to the FTC to the wrong senator. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote the letter.
WASHINGTON -- In a widening of the U.S. government’s pressure on Volkswagen, a top U.S. senator today called for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Volkswagen’s advertising of its diesel engines and explore possible recourse for consumers who purchased the vehicles.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called on the FTC to probe whether VW’s advertising of the environmental benefits of its “clean diesels” fell under laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive practices.
The automaker has admitted to installing software designed to fool U.S. emissions tests on some 482,000 diesel vehicles sold in the United States since 2008, part of some 11 million VW vehicles sold with the technology worldwide. The software enabled the vehicles to pass U.S. emissions testing in labs but vehicles emitted pollutants far above permitted levels in the real world.
“Volkswagen advertised their diesel cars as ‘clean diesel’ and as otherwise environmentally friendly. Yet, contrary to these express claims, Volkswagen’s and Audi’s diesel vehicles, by design, were neither clean nor environmentally friendly, and they failed to comply with federal environmental laws,” Nelson wrote in a letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
“I am outraged that VW would cheat its customers by deceiving them into buying a car that wasn’t what was advertised.”
In his letter, Nelson said the FTC could also force VW to compensate affected owners and require VW to launch a marketing campaign to inform consumers of the deception and describe consumers’ options for relief.
An FTC spokesman said the agency never responds publicly to such calls, but said it takes them seriously.
It was not clear if Nelson's call for an investigation would include auto dealerships. The FTC has brought more than 20 cases against U.S. auto dealers since 2012 for deceptive advertising practices. One effort was called “Operation Steer Clear” and another one was called “Operation Ruse Control.”
“Protecting consumers in the auto marketplace remains a top priority for the FTC,” spokeswoman Cheryl Warner said in an email to Automotive News in July.
If an FTC probe is launched, it would join what’s becoming a full-court press of U.S. government inquires into Volkswagen’s alleged emissions malfeasance.
The U.S. Justice Department has reportedly opened a criminal probe into VW’s actions, joining existing civil investigations by the EPA and California’s Air Resources Board that are already underway. State attorneys general are also organizing a group to probe VW over the diesel emissions scandal, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing before its investigations subcommittee on the scandal in the near future.
German authorities also are launching additional investigations into VW’s handling of the crisis.