Growing awareness of the harmful effects of diesel fumes has prompted European cities to consider bans of diesel cars and has led consumers to reject cars with diesel engines, a largely German innovation that traditionally accounted for half the market.

The backlash could take on a new, far broader dimension if it turns out that the excess emissions were the result of illegal collusion by a de facto cartel. The investigation could also lead to billions of euros in fines.

In a statement on Saturday, the European Commission partially confirmed a report in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that said the authorities were investigating evidence that representatives of the automakers met regularly to agree on technical specifications for everything from brakes to clutches to emissions systems. The collusion began in the mid-1990s and continued until recently, according to Der Spiegel, which said it had seen documents that were part of an antitrust investigation.


In 2006, according to the magazine, the German carmakers agreed to limit the size of the tanks used to hold a chemical solution that helps neutralize diesel emissions. Volkswagen and its Audi division have previously admitted in court documents that the tanks they installed in their cars did not hold enough of the solution, known as AdBlue, to last between oil changes. The company did not want the tanks to take space from the cars' sound systems, according to a criminal complaint against an Audi engineer filed earlier this month in the United States.

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