Diesel Cheating May Involve Millions Of Pickup Trucks

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Capping a 5 year investigation that was triggered by the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal, the EPA has concluded that more than half a million medium and heavy duty pickup trucks in America powered by diesel engines have been modified by their owners, resulting in 570,000 tons of excess oxides of nitrogen and 5,000 tons of particulate matter being emitted into the atmosphere over the lifetime of the vehicles. The EPA studied only diesel pickup trucks weighing between 8,500 pounds and 14,000 pounds, according to a report by the New York Times.

Courtesy of Chevrolet

“[I]t is difficult to estimate the full extent of tampering nationwide,” the EPA report says. “Air Enforcement Division has reason to believe this conduct occurs within most or all categories of vehicles and engines, including commercial trucks, passenger vehicles, pickup trucks, motorcycles, forestry equipment and agricultural equipment.” The problem is, the emission control systems of most internal combustion engines in operation today are controlled by computer software. Any fool who knows how to code can rewrite that software and then sell the hack to others online or at trade shows. Even Amazon sells them.

“The aftermarket defeat device problem is huge,” says Phillip Brooks, a former E.P.A. emissions investigator who worked on the diesel tuner investigation and the Volkswagen case. “A lot of people just don’t understand what the problem is. Your average person buys a vehicle and says, ‘It’s my vehicle, I can do what I want with it.’ They may not even be aware that these devices are illegal.”

Unlike news about how Volkswagen sold a half million diesel powered cars in the US equipped with software designed to bypass emissions controls, which was trumpeted from the highest levels of government, the latest EPA diesel cheating news slipped out the back door after the report was emailed to the heads of three environmental organizations by Evan Belser, deputy director of the Air Enforcement Division at the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement on November 20.

The EPA report estimates 557,478 medium and heavy duty trucks have been fitted with emissions defeat devices. The cumulative effect of the extra pollutants coming from their exhaust pipes is estimated to be equal to the emissions from nearly 10 million diesel pickups that are in full compliance with applicable rules and regulations. The report does not address light duty pickup trucks with diesel engines, which are far more numerous, but there is no reason to believe the owners of those vehicles have not modified them as well.

How come the emissions testing stations in the various states haven’t caught the cheaters? The EPA report estimates there are over 60,000 medium and heavy duty pickups in Texas alone that are out of compliance. The answer is simple. Those testing facilities don’t actually sample tailpipe emissions. Instead, they interrogate the onboard computers installed in the vehicles. The cheating software is programmed to report that all is well, even though it is is not. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Federal funding for state enforcement programs has been flat for more than a decade. The E.P.A.’s budget for state and local implementation of the Clean Air Act has been the same every year since 2004 — $228 million. “There are state and local codes and laws in place to crack down on this,” Miles Keough, the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, tells the New York Times. “But they are all running on the same small budget.”

Which is not to say nothing is being done. Earlier this year, the EPA reached an $850,000 settlement with Punch It Performance and Tuning, a small Florida company that had been selling illegal diesel devices online. According to E.P.A. documents, the settlement was lower than it could have been due to the company’s “limited financial ability to pay a higher penalty. In order to pay this penalty, Defendants have represented that they will sell residential real estate properties that they purchased with profits made from the manufacture and sale of defeat devices.”

James Hewitt, a spokesperson for the EPA, told the New York Times on November 25, “Under our National Compliance Initiative, in FY 2020, E.P.A., resolved more civil tampering and aftermarket defeat device cases (31) that prevented more motor vehicle emissions (14.6 million pounds) than in any prior year in the agency’s history. Additionally, E.P.A. has assessed more in civil penalties, criminal fines, and restitution under this administration than the first four years of the Obama administration.”

That last part is clearly political doctrine fed to Mr. Hewitt by party apparatchiks at the EPA. Hewitt may keep his job as a result of toeing the party line while Evan Belser, if he is smart, is busy updating his resume. Senior officials at the EPA were apparently unaware of the report until The Times called looking for a comment. Belser has committed the worst offense possible in the bureaucratic world — making the boss look bad.

Why would 15% of diesel truck owners spend money to disable the pollution controls fitted to their vehicles? It’s complicated. Those controls sap some power and fuel economy. If you are lugging a load of concrete pipe uphill in the Rocky Mountains, you want all the grunt your engine can provide. And if you are paying for your own diesel fuel, you want to get the most miles per gallon possible. Those pollution controls also need regular maintenance, which can be expensive. There are exhaust gas recirculation devices, NOx absorption catalysts, and selective catalytic reduction systems and they all need to be checked, adjusted, repaired, or replaced over the lifetime of a vehicle.

There are also other, more subtle factors at work. Some of these devices allow drivers to envelope those in other vehicles in a cloud of sooty black smoke, a practice known to the Neanderthals doing it as rolling coal. It’s a way of punishing people who drive Teslas and other green weenies who are oh-so-smug about their environmental credentials. For some, driving a jacked up diesel pickup that sounds like the hammers of Hell when the light turns green is a thrill. It’s a way for powerless people to feel powerful. “This is not a great way to express how to be a free American, but there are a lot of people out there who think that way,” Phillip Brooks says.

When Volkswagen did this, people were outraged — rending their garments and demanding the scalps of the company’s leaders. One VW official is still in prison for his role in the scandal. Will there be the same sort of public outcry now that an even worse diesel cheating scandal has been exposed? Probably not. Diesel pickup trucks are the leaders in the competition to be the biggest, boldest, most badass beasts in the asphalt jungle. Many will celebrate their owners’ “in your face” challenge to officialdom. For guidance on how this will all play out, consult your local Zen master.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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