Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating scandal increased the scrutiny on every automaker. There’s a lot of shady stuff going on.
When Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating software was discovered in September of 2015, it rocked the auto industry. But in the ensuing months, nearly every other major automaker worldwide has come under increased scrutiny regarding real-world vehicle emissions and fuel economy—and some of what’s been discovered seems a little bit shady. It seems Volkswagen wasn’t alone in trying to outsmart regulators.
Here, then, is a brief update on the many alleged emissions and fuel economy irregularities uncovered since the VW TDI fallout. We have a hunch this is just the tip of the iceberg.
General Motors’ German brand came under fire in mid-May of 2016, after a joint investigation by German news magazine Der Spiegel, ARD television program Monitor, and the environmentalist group Deutsche Umwelthilfe discovered software on diesel-powered Zafira minivans and Insignia sedans that turns off emissions controls during real-world driving. Opel CEO Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann released an initial statement denying “any illegal software” and insisting that “our engines are in line with the legal requirements;” later, Opel published a lengthy and in-depth statement explaining why the software discovered by the investigation is technically legal.
And astoundingly, while the software does indeed turn off the affected vehicles’ emissions controls in most real-world driving scenarios, as Bertel Schmitt points out at Forbes, the software is likely to be found 100-percent compliant with European Union laws.
That’s because E.U. law allows automakers to program their emissions controls to deactivate when necessary to protect the engine from harm. And it allows the automakers to define for themselves what counts as a protective shutdown. So Opel’s affected diesel vehicles shut off all emissions controls at ambient temperatures below 20C (68F), or above 30C (86F), or at speeds over 145 km/h (90 mph), or engine speeds more than 2400 RPM, or at elevations higher than 850 meters (roughly 2800 feet). As Schmitt points out, Opel has a plausible-sounding explanation for each of these parameters—but coincidentally, Opel and every other automaker knows that E.U. emissions testing occurs at ambient temperatures between 20C and 30C, at speeds below 145 km/h, with engine speed never exceeding 2400 RPM; they also know that the highest elevation of an E.U. testing facility is at roughly 800 meters.
The fact that the vast majority of real-world driving would trigger an emissions control shutdown? Irrelevant, says Opel: “Our engines are in compliance with the legal requirements.”
While GM’s German branch is being closely scrutinized for diesel emissions in Europe, here in the U.S. the giant automaker has a bit of a fuel economy issue on its hands. It was discovered that the 2016 Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave were all sold with window stickers that indicate fuel economy ratings a full two MPG better than the EPA’s official numbers. GM blamed the issue on “improper calculations,” and put a temporary stop-sale on inventory of affected vehicles until corrected window stickers could be printed. For owners who purchased the mislabeled vehicles, GM is offering up to $900 in make-good money or a free extended warranty to make up for the calculated lifetime cost associated with a two-MPG drop in fuel economy. The action is expected to cost GM approximately $100 million.
In February of this year, a group of U.S. Mercedes owners filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging that the automaker’s BlueTEC diesel-powered vehicles shut off their emissions controls in real-world driving. A second class-action suit filed in April characterized the software as a “defeat device” akin to Volkswagen’s TDI cheat. Both suits allege that Mercedes BlueTEC diesels, which use a costly and complex urea-injection system to combat diesel NOx emissions, shut down at ambient temperatures below 50F. Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler characterizes this as a necessary measure to protect the engine—the same justification Opel is currently using in its own diesel saga. At the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, Daimler has launched an internal investigation into its certification process for U.S.-market diesel engines.
Fiat recently found itself in an emissions imbroglio over the European-market diesel-powered 500X. It’s similar to the Opel situation, but with trademark Italian flair and brashness.
Late in April, German news outlet Bild am Sonntag reported that Fiat’s 2.0-liter diesel-powered 500X almost entirely shuts off its emissions control devices after 22 minutes of driving. German environmental activist group DUH, which claims to have uncovered Opel’s shutoff software, says a diesel 500X it tested put out between 11 and 22 times the legal limit of NOx emissions when tested with a warm engine.
Perhaps not coincidentally, European emissions testing starts with a cold engine and lasts approximately 20 minutes.
As Bertel Schmitt points out at Forbes, the seemingly rudimentary nature of Fiat’s emissions workaround could be its undoing. While Opel’s many narrow parameters seem to ensure that its diesel vehicles will shut off emissions controls in most real-world driving scenarios, they give the automaker some plausible deniability, with a robust-sounding engine-preservation explanation for every shutdown scenario. Fiat’s 22-minutes-and-done strategy probably doesn’t provide for such fine-tuned answers.