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The Environmental Protection Agency says that tampering with vehicle emissions control devices is illegal and punishable.
So what are we to make, then, of the EPA's recent finding that the owners and operators of some half-million diesel pickups in the U.S. are knowingly breaking the law?
And what are we to make of the fact that an entire cottage industry manufactures and hawks devices – which are illegal, according to the EPA – that “defeat" the required emission-control devices on vehicles?
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same issue surfaced in 2015 with revelations that Volkswagen had installed “defeat devices" on some 580,000 VW, Audi, and Porsche diesel cars sold in the U.S. In that case, the German manufacturer-installed software that concealed the true levels of nitrogen oxide the engines were producing.
After the EPA launched legal action against Volkswagen that year, the company's chairman, Hans-Dieter Potsch, admitted that the carmaker had done it because it couldn't find a technical solution within the company's “time frame and budget" to meet U.S. emission standards. Not only did the company have to spend $14.7 billion to settle claims, but it also had to pay a $2.8 billion criminal fine.
In that case, the EPA and the courts had a single target – Volkswagen – that simplified the regulatory and legal task.
But now, with the revelation of the widespread cheating among diesel pickup owners and the parts companies that serve them, the challenge is more difficult because many companies are doing it.
In fact, knowledge of the practice is not new. EPA has been aware of the problem for several years, and that's why the agency first officially targeted “Stopping Aftermarket Defeat Devices for Vehicles and Engines" in June 2019. That's also why EPA began studying the extent of the illegality.
In addition to counting the 550,000 diesel pickups that had illegally altered their emission-control systems in the last decade, EPA also measured how many companies are manufacturing these devices. The agency counted 28 of them that are making at least 45 different products that are either hardware or software.
The environmental impact, EPA says, has been enormous. The illegal devices allow diesel pickups to emit 10 times the nitrogen oxide of the Volkswagen vehicles.
The EPA has resolved more than 60 cases against companies that make or distribute defeat devices since 2017, and often the task is not difficult. A Florida car-parts distributor, Freedom Peformance, LLC, literally advertised the product's illegal nature on its website: Referring to one particular emission control system, it said that while “certainly noble in its intent, in reality it is putting your engine through hell. … The best solution is deletion."
In February, EPA said Freedom Performance would pay $7 million for committing thousands of violations.
The makers and distributors of defeat devices claim that they increase mileage, improve engine performance, and extend vehicle lifetimes. The Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group representing the vehicle “aftermarket," calls the EPA emissions rules “confusing and draconian."
It's quite clear that the EPA's target is not individual pickup owners; it's the industry that makes and sells these products. While individuals may take heart in that knowledge, it does sound like the EPA fully intends to make these products much harder to find.
EPA does have other people in mind, however – those who may be concerned about air quality. The agency has created a tip line, saying, “If you suspect someone is manufacturing, selling or installing illegal defeat devices, or is tampering with emissions controls, tell EPA by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.