History has a tendency to repeat itself, but in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, it would seem unlikely that other automotive companies would make the same mistake. But yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. and Fiat Chrysler US LLC (collectively FCA) for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act for installing and failing to disclose engine management software in light-duty model year 2014, 2015 and 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram 1500 trucks with 3.0-liter diesel engines sold in the United States.
The undisclosed software results in increased emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from roughly 104,000 vehicles. EPA is working in coordination with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has also issued a notice of violation to FCA. EPA and CARB have both initiated investigations based on FCA’s alleged actions.
“Failing to disclose software that affects emissions in a vehicle’s engine is a serious violation of the law, which can result in harmful pollution in the air we breathe,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “We continue to investigate the nature and impact of these devices. All automakers must play by the same rules, and we will continue to hold companies accountable that gain an unfair and illegal competitive advantage.”
The Clean Air Act requires vehicle manufacturers to demonstrate to EPA through a certification process that their products meet applicable federal emission standards to control air pollution. As part of the certification process, automakers are required to disclose and explain any software, known as auxiliary emission-control devices, which can alter how a vehicle emits air pollution. FCA did not disclose the existence of certain auxiliary emission-control devices to EPA in its applications for certificates of conformity for model year 2014, 2015 and 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram 1500 trucks, despite being aware that such a disclosure was mandatory. By failing to disclose this software and then selling vehicles that contained it, FCA violated important provisions of the Clean Air Act.
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“Once again, a major automaker made the business decision to skirt the rules and got caught,” said CARB chair Mary D. Nichols. “CARB and U.S. EPA made a commitment to enhanced testing as the Volkswagen case developed, and this is a result of that collaboration.”
FCA may be liable for civil penalties and injunctive relief for the alleged violations. EPA is also investigating whether the auxiliary emission control devices constitute “defeat devices,” which are illegal.
In September 2015, EPA launched an expanded testing program to screen for defeat devices on light duty vehicles. This testing revealed that the FCA vehicle models in question produce increased NOx emissions under conditions that would be encountered in normal operation and use. As part of the investigation, EPA has found that at least eight undisclosed pieces of software that can alter how a vehicle emits air pollution.
Fiat Chrysler isn’t the only carmaker coming under fire from authorities. French automotive manufacturer Renault is now under investigation by French prosecutors for potential cheating on exhaust emissions. Renault claims to be innocent, but the allegation is already having far-reaching effects — after the announcement, shares in Renault fell more than 4 percent to their lowest level in about a month.
While VW is the only manufacturer to have been found to have installed software designed solely for the purpose of circumventing emissions tests, British and German regulators have reason to believe that carmakers have made considerable use of a “thermal window” that allows them to turn down pollution-control systems in order to protect the engine. What’s more, they said they had found that some brands defined the “thermal window” in such a way that exhaust treatment systems were switched off most of the time.
Switching off or dialing back emissions-treatment systems in cold weather reduces condensation to prevent rust and reduces exhaust-filtering effectiveness in the long run. Additionally, it can help improve engine performance and stretch the intervals between refilling vehicles with urea, a substance needed to extract NOx from exhaust fumes. Regulators are now trying to determine when a “thermal window” engine-management system becomes an illegal “defeat device.”
Following the EPA and Renault allegations, the European Commission and authorities in Germany and the UK indicated that they would look at what implications they might have for the EU.
As Areeba Hamid, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace UK, put it: “How many nails in the coffin does diesel need? Just a day after Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests in over 500,000 vehicles and received fines of $4.3 billion, these are serious charges against Fiat which show that this industry in crisis.”
“But the writing should already be on the wall for diesel vehicles. Air quality in cities across Europe continues to suffer as a result of these cars polluting far more than they are allowed to, and we know that diesel emissions are toxic to human health. It’s time to embrace cleaner technologies: Governments need to step in to end the sale of these cars and the motor industry needs to turn the page on this grubby chapter.”
There has been some recent movement on this front: Last month, at the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City, the City – along with Paris, Madrid and Athens - pledged to remove all diesel vehicles by 2025, as part of an effort by mayors to improve air quality – an example the mayor of London would be prudent to follow.
As if to ensure the momentum continues, at least here in the States, the EPA also announced today that, despite protests from automakers, carbon pollution standards for cars and light trucks will remain unchanged through 2025.