New Diesel Emissions Lawsuits: What’s Happening?

This week, both Fiat Chrysler and GM face lawsuits over diesel emissions standards. For Fiat Chrysler, theirs comes from the EPA, and alleges that they used defeat devices (just like VW) to trick emissions software during testing on their diesel Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 vehicles. GM faces a private class action suit that alleges they had a similar software “cheat” on their Silverado and Sierra 2500 trucks, and that they mislead customers.

So, what is happening with diesel cars in the US? Almost every large automaker in the US who makes a diesel vehicle has faced significant difficulty. Aside from VW’s massive scandal, BMW and Mercedes had 2017 vehicles held for for certification by the EPA. Mercedes ultimately decided not to sell the 2017 vehicles. Did everyone simply cheat on emissions to meet the new standards, and now they have to face the music?

The story is definitely more complex than that. In VW’s case, there was clearly wrongdoing–the newer diesels did have software that adapted to make emissions much better under testing conditions, and, for the sake of fuel economy, much worse under most other driving conditions.

But it’s also the case that automakers use software design in ECUs to maximize vehicle performance under certain conditions. Auto manufacturers might simply be taking advantage of legal loopholes in the EPA standards to improve fuel economy and performance in some circumstances, and worsen it in others at the expense of lowered emissions. The net effect might be that vehicles meet emissions standards, as defined, after all.

Consider, for example, the totally legal concept of the thermal window. Pollution control systems can damage an engine in cold weather, so automakers aren’t required to use them all the time. Automakers have taken advantage of this and broadly defined cold weather, with one automaker stretching the definition of cold weather to 64 degrees F and colder. This way, they are not legally obligated to have their emissions controls on all the time, and the vehicle performs better and gets better fuel economy.

While it’s not in the spirit of the emissions regulations, the thermal window is used by every automaker to improve its fuel economy ratings and meet emissions standards.

The upshot is this: all auto manufacturers find creative new ways to meet ever-tightening emissions standards, and many of these methods are within legal boundaries. In Fiat’s case, this lawsuit puts pressure on them to settle with the EPA, regardless of whether or not they actually broke any significant rules. The complexities of emissions standards and testing allow room for interpretation, and as time goes on we’ll see a constant battle between regulators and industry over what they can and can’t do to meet emissions standards. The lawsuits aren’t over, and I predict we’ll see companies without any diesel vehicles in their lineup start to feel the heat from regulators and class actions over their use of software to tweak engine performance and meet regulations.

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