Emissions fail: The dirt on “clean” diesels

Oct. 11, 2016
Software cheats and government loopholes have left the field wide open for scandal amid automakers.

In the wake of the recent allegations that another major automaker, Mitsubishi, has confessed to altering emissions testing capabilities, I wanted to take a closer look at the rules and regulations that govern emissions programs.

First, a quick primer: News broke last year that Volkswagen had tweaked its diesel vehicle emissions software for TDI engine models to allow two separate operating modes. One mode meets all the parameters for compliance regarding EPA-regulated emissions requirements, triggered to adjust engine performance when an emissions test is prompted on the system. However, when driving normally, the computer switches to another mode that significantly changes the fuel pressure, injection timing, exhaust-gas recirculation parameters for better fuel efficiency and performance, at the cost of higher NOx emissions.

Coined “defeat devices,” a mechanism attached to the engine changes the software mode to adjust the vehicle systems’ operation in certain pre-determined conditions.

This software has been installed on more than half a million Volkwagen diesel models introduced in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015; not to mention millions in Europe, where diesel is a prominent fuel for light duty passenger vehicles. Shortly thereafter, some Audi and Porsche vehicles also were found to be non-compliant.

Next steps, at least in the case of Volkswagen? Something we’re all too familiar with: the dreaded “R” word. As the manufacturer looks into options, such as vehicle recalls, buyback programs or retrofitting proper equipment to update the performance of the vehicle to match the proper emissions testing criteria.   

While this hits close to home with the VW scandal, it’s a global issue.

Now, Mitsubishi is in hot water, with vehicles affected possibly dating back all the way to 1991 – that’s 25 years of misrepresented information.

While Mitsubishi’s scandal is unique to cars on the road in Japan, altering information to meet government regulations runs rampant among a number of vehicle manufacturers.

This isn’t anything new. Back in the 1990s, heavy duty diesel OEs were caught using “defect devices” to alter emissions output. This led to the development of PEMS, or portable emissions measurement systems, for real-world emissions testing. While a dynamometer uses set criteria with little alterations to test emissions, the real-world testing provides an indication of how the vehicle is actually used.

PEMS technology was recently used by the engineering team at West Virginia University, when asked to research diesel car exhaust emissions by an independent non-profit (The International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT). The test included a random set of makes and models on the road today – including two of VW models that started the emissions scandal.

Volkswagen and Mitsubishi have been blatantly cheating the system. But other auto manufacturers also have circumvented the system by still “legally” passing the emissions test, or they have been called out for other misrepresented information.

Instances include Opel, GM’s German segment, allowing vehicles to shut off the emissions controls in certain temperature and speed parameters (something technically allowed for EU vehicles); GM’s inaccurate fuel economy ratings on some 2016 model vehicles; Mercedes-Benz allegedly shutting off the system that captures NOx emissions at certain temperatures; the list goes on.

Government regulated emissions levels are dictated by lab test results – which are much more deliberate and specific, and certainly not indicative of how consumers drive vehicles in real-world conditions.

If that’s not enough; according to an April 2016 report by The Guardian, a recent test conducted in the U.K. determined that 97 percent of diesel light duty vehicles emit more than the legal limit for EU NOx emissions.

While not only misrepresenting the actual performance of the vehicle, these proprietary software programs highlight just how much we don’t know about the internal workings of today’s technologically advanced vehicles.

So now, there’s a crack in the glass as we find out just how wide-reaching these practices are among vehicle manufacturers. It will be interesting to see if any other OEs are uncovered.

About the Author

Erica Schueller | Editorial Director | Commercial Vehicle Group

Erica Schueller is the Editorial Director of the Endeavor Commercial Vehicle Group. The commercial vehicle group includes the following brands: American Trucker, Bulk Transporter, Fleet Maintenance, FleetOwner, Refrigerated Transporter, and Trailer/Body Builders brands.

An award-winning journalist, Schueller has reported and written about the vehicle maintenance and repair industry her entire career. She has received accolades for her reporting and editing in the commercial and automotive vehicle fields by the Truck Writers of North America (TWNA), the International Automotive Media Competition (IAMC), the Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Azbee Awards.

Schueller has received recognition among her publishing industry peers as a recipient of the 2014 Folio Top Women in Media Rising Stars award, acknowledging her accomplishments of digital content management and assistance with improving the print and digital products in the Vehicle Repair Group. She was also named one Women in Trucking’s 2018 Top Women in Transportation to Watch.

She is an active member of a number of industry groups, including the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC),  the Auto Care Association's Young Auto Care Networking Group, GenNext, and Women in Trucking.

In December 2018, Schueller graduated at the top of her class from the Waukesha County Technical College's 10-week professional truck driving program, earning her Class A commercial driver's license (CDL).  

She has worked in the vehicle repair and maintenance industry since 2008.

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