Scientists Stand Up Against Shoddy Science on Glider Vehicles

March 16, 2018
Jeremy Rempel. CC-BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
Jonna Hamilton
Director of Policy, Clean Transportation Program

The newest twists and turns in the glider vehicle saga

Glider vehicles have gone from being a niche issue to a major conversation piece both here in DC and now also in Tennessee.  The villains are still Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, Fitzgerald Glider Kits, and Congresswoman Diane Black.  The new heroes are the Tennessee Tech University (TTU) faculty and students.

First a quick recap of the issue: Glider vehicles are new truck bodies that have old, polluting engines in them.  As noted in my colleague Dave Cooke’s previous blogs, the particulate matter (PM) emissions alone from these vehicles will cause an additional 1600 premature deaths annually (assuming they make 10,000 vehicles a year). And the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions are 10x that of the emissions from the Volkswagen diesel cars that were outfitted with defeat devices for every year this loophole remains open.

These dirty polluting trucks are terrible for the environment, our health (particularly the health of people who live along trucking corridors, predominantly people of color, which was acknowledged in an early draft of the proposal to roll back the rule), and for companies and dealers that sell new trucks that actually meet the current PM and NOx emissions standards.

The glider vehicle loophole was closed as part of the Heavy-Duty Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions regulations that were finalized in 2016 – Administrator Pruitt is looking to repeal the part of the rule that limits the number of glider vehicles that can be sold with pre-2010 engines.

But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t seem to care about any of that.  There are several different layers of malfeasance happening here, many of them come directly out of my colleagues’ Disinformation Playbook.  I’ll start with the science interference.

The newest twist in this story is about the “study” that TTU performed and Fitzgerald included in their request that the agency repeal the rule that limits the production of super polluting glider vehicles.  I will admit, here at UCS, we were incredulous about the brevity of the “data” and lack of methodology included in the “study” – it’s basically a table with almost no information – it includes carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, which have been under control in transportation for some time, an acknowledgement that all trucks they tested have higher NOx emissions than allowed, and said that the PM emissions were “below the threshold detection point” (because they didn’t measure it! check out Dave’s blog on this point – it’s gold). Because we are a bunch of science nerds, we wondered who would have signed off on this testing?  What was the level of scientific rigor?  Did no one at the university notice that the study was designed, bought, and paid for by Fitzgerald?

Tennessee Tech University faculty fight back

Unknown to us, there was a giant debate happening among the faculty at Tennessee Tech University about this very “study.”  It turns out that this “study” really is just a politically-driven hack job and the faculty at Tennessee Tech University aren’t having it.

The Faculty Senate business meeting minutes are amazing and downright enjoyable to read.  They appear to have first talked about it on January 29th and the Faculty Senators just ripped into Tom Brewer (more on him later), asking all of the questions you would expect – who conducted this research? Did you actually not measure PM? Do you not realize this looks like a conflict of interest? etc.  The very next day, they approved a resolution that starts by saying that their reputation has been damaged by this “study” and demands an external investigation of the person who led it (Tom Brewer), that TTU President Oldham withdraw university support for the “study,” that all research and associations with Fitzgerald are suspended, and that there is an immediate internal investigation of the “study.”

It took until February 19th, but TTU President Oldham sent a letter to the EPA asking them to disregard the “study,” as they were going to submit it for peer-review.  A win for science!!

I promised more information about Tom Brewer, the person who apparently oversaw the “research” for the “study.”  Brewer has a BA in business administration and previously worked in product administration at GM, was the president of the Board of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association, and was brought to TTU to be “an industry liaison.”  This is the “expert” that ran the study.  Fitzgerald apparently has “no engineers experts on staff” nor any of the appropriate equipment to conduct the testing.

Corporate cronyism

There is a political story that underlies all of this – namely that Fitzgerald, the largest glider vehicle manufacturer, happens to be located in Congresswoman Diane Black’s district (she’s running for Governor of Tennessee this year, if you want to keep tabs on her).  Representative Black has long sought to ensure that these zombie trucks continue to be sold in high numbers – she has repeatedly introduced (unsuccessful) appropriations riders to stop glider vehicles from being regulated.  She is also the person that TTU sent their “study” to and it was that letter that got forwarded on and included in the Fitzgerald request to roll back any regulations for glider vehicles.

In addition, it is worth noting the timing of this whole withdrawal process.  At one point, Fitzgerald said that they would still be able to make a profit if sales volumes were capped; this stance changed shortly after Administrator Pruitt was confirmed, however.  Last year, Fitzgerald met with Administrator Pruitt in May, submitted their petition for reconsideration in July, and the notice that this was going to be revisited came out in August. In December, EPA held a hearing at which several UCS supporters testified (thank you!!) and over 26,000 UCS supporters sent comment letters to EPA requesting that this loophole stay closed – our supporters are awesome!

Fitzgerald is clearly working to exert their influence at every turn.  They are sponsoring university research that they are refusing to release details of (The Fake in the playbook).  And about at the same time, Fitzgerald gifted land to the university to build a Center for Intelligent Mobility (The Screen in the playbook).  They are clearly behind the entire repeal effort happening at the EPA and are the reason that Congresswoman Black has been championing zombie trucks for years (The Fix in the playbook).

The uproar at Tennessee Tech University, the blatant political motivations that have been in the mainstream press here, here, and here, Congressional scrutiny, and common decency aren’t likely enough to keep this loophole you could drive a truck  through closed.  I think it’s incredibly likely that Administrator Pruitt goes ahead with his proposal to allow unregulated glider vehicle sales.  It’s up to all of us to let him know that that’s not ok.  Please take this action to speak out against this and we’ll keep you updated on the next steps.