#dieselgate, pt. II: Sergio’s Revenge

, senior vehicles analyst | January 17, 2017, 3:31 pm EST
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Today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) violated the Clean Air Act with sales of Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles powered by diesel engines.  This falls on the heels of the Volkswagen (VW) diesel scandal.  The engine at question is FCA’s 3.0-liter “EcoDiesel”—which could turn out to be anything but.

What the allegations say

Since this is an ongoing investigation, there are still a number of unanswered questions.  Here is what EPA has alleged:

  • Fiat-Chrysler did not disclose to EPA that certain software affects the operation of the emissions controls devices found in the Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
  • The software in question shuts off operation of the emissions control device. While this is allowed in extreme cases to protect the reliability and durability of the controls, EPA found numerous operating conditions that would fall into the category of “normal operation and use” and would therefore not be an allowable exception.
  • Taken together, these have the effect of a defeat device—this means that FCA could be liable for cheating federal emissions regulations and emitting smog-forming pollution well above the legal limit.

For his part, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of FCA, says that “there was zero intent on our side” to cheat on emissions regulations, calling such an idea “unadulterated hogwash” and noting that there’s “nothing in common between the VW reality and what we are describing here.”

According to the EPA, Ram 1500 pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees powered by the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine contain software that may behave as a defeat device, releasing tons of excess smog-forming pollution that impacts public health. (Images courtesy of Motor Trend)

According to the EPA, Ram 1500 pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees powered by the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine contain software that may behave as a defeat device, releasing tons of excess smog-forming pollution that negatively impacts public health. (Images courtesy of Motor Trend: Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500)

How does the sequel compare to the original?

FCA is correct to note that this is not quite the same thing as what VW did—in the case of VW, the software was explicitly tuned to alter operations dependent solely upon whether or not the vehicle was undergoing a test procedure.  The software at question in the Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee is more subtle—the emissions control devices remain fully operational during lab tests and are turned off during some typical on-road driving situations, but at question is whether or not these situations are narrow enough to fall within the exceptions allowed to protect the durability and reliability of the engine and its emissions control systems.  Because the types of situations are so broadly typical of routine driving behavior, these undisclosed shutdown modes were enough to raise a few eyebrows, particularly when considered in tandem.

How do the emissions controls work in the 2014-2016 EcoDiesel Jeep/Ram trucks?

The emissions control system in the Jeep/Ram trucks relies upon two separate systems working together to reduce formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx), one of the key ingredients in the formation of smog: exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), which recirculates exhaust gas back into the engine to reduce the formation of NOx; and selective catalytic reduction (SCR), which activates a fluid which reacts to chemically reduce NOx after its formed.

When one of those systems is turned off, the other can often compensate for a short amount of time.  For reasons related to durability of the engine and/or the controls system, there are narrow operating conditions where such shut-off is allowed.  However, such operation must be disclosed to EPA (which EPA alleges FCA did not do), and it must fall within a narrow band of operating conditions.  Key here is that there were a number of situations identified by EPA where both systems would be simultaneously either turned off or reduced in effectiveness—this means that the emissions system would be compromised, regularly emitting excess NOx emissions during normal vehicle operation and use.  Such conditions would not be generated when the vehicle was tested for emissions, which is another part of the reason this would have the effect of a “defeat device”.

In addition to the EPA allegations, a lawsuit was filed against FCA in December for the same vehicles by consumers who bought these vehicles in part because of the “Eco” and “clean diesel” marketing around them.  Accompanying that lawsuit was data from on-road emissions tests which showed average emissions of around 4-5 times the legal limit measured during real-world driving of a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, with spikes in NOx as high as 40 times the certified level.

What are the potential health and emissions impacts?

Because of the shortage of details, it is impossible to know the full impact this scandal will have on emissions and public health.  Still, there are a few reasons why the problem here is likely not as severe as the VW scandal.

The affected vehicles by this allegation have only been available since model year (MY) 2014, which means regulators can address this problem much more quickly than the VW scandal, minimizing the impact they have on the environment.  The average vehicle identified here is likely to have traveled just half the mileage of those affected in the VW scandal, on average.  Perhaps most importantly, it also appears that the levels of excess emissions generated by the vehicles in question are likely significantly less than many of those included in the VW scandal—the data provided in the lawsuit shows that excess emissions from these vehicles could be around one-third that of the VW diesel cars, at the tailpipe.  And in total, the MY2014-2016 EcoDiesel Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee amount to about one-fifth the sales of the VW diesels covered under “dieselgate”.  Taken all together, the impact from this could thus be roughly a few percent that of the Volkswagen scandal.

While that may not sound like a lot, these software cheats could have helped contribute to at least a handful of premature deaths and increased hospitalizations from air pollution-related cardiovascular distress.  Aside from the significant damage to public health and the environment, cleaning up this mess will also likely require tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in remediation—hopefully payable by FCA and not the taxpayer.

Is there any good news on the horizon?

Another scandal like this is obviously terrible for the American people, especially those near congested roadways.  It is also not great for automakers looking to more efficient diesel engines to meet vehicle efficiency regulations set out to 2025.

Like the VW problem, this scandal will not be easy to fix.  While FCA believes it can address the issue solely via software updates and has offered to do so, VW said the same thing about its 3.0L diesel engines, and we are still waiting for an approved fix for those vehicles.

EPA is rightly utilizing more real-world emissions testing to complement its lab tests, and similarly subtle emissions violations by other automakers could yet be uncovered.  Given how complex and nuanced this investigation’s outcomes, it is possible there could be additional inquiries into other manufacturers—Mercedes, for example, has already been under investigation for similar software.

With the next administration getting ready to take office, it will be important that EPA continue to protect the public health and well-being of the American public by remaining vigilant against automakers, maintaining a level playing field where all are held equally accountable for their actions.

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  • Carl Szabo

    Dave,
    Your article makes many typical allegations/insinuations to sensationalize your cause. The reality is all of these vehicles are returning exceptional MPG for there owners well beyond what gas powered vehicles could ever acheive. In that there is significant economic and health (if you will) benefits that are grossly ignored. There is not a scientist on the planet that could justify the ridiculousness of the EPA’s actions here and that is where the real harm taking place. We all want clean air but these vehicles are not the major polluters.

    • That there are other sources of nitrogen oxide emissions is irrelevant — there are laws on the books governing allowable tailpipe emissions of NOx, and these vehicles exceed those allowable emissions. FCA did not disclose the software which results in these excess emissions, nor have they (to date) justified it. That’s illegal, plain and simple, and FCA is being held accountable. It doesn’t magically stop being true just because someone saved a couple bucks at the gas pump.

      Also, these tailpipe emissions standards are technology neutral, which means every light-duty vehicle is responsible for meeting them, whether powered by gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hydrogen, or electricity.

      • Carl Szabo

        Yep there are laws on the books. Too many of them and too many that make zero sense at all. There is a group of people pushing an agenda that can not be a one size fits all. This is nonsensical and scientists and engineers should know better. .