Economy First Look

EPA questions Fiat Chrysler’s diesels: A repeat of the VW scandal?

The EPA is investigating whether Fiat Chrysler used 'defeat devices' to trick emissions tests for its vehicles, similar to those used on approximately 580,000 Volkswagen cars sold in the US.

Workers leave the Warren Truck Assembly, a Chrysler automobile factory, during a shift change in Warren, Mich., on Oct. 24, 2007. The EPA has accused Fiat Chrysler of not disclosing software that allowed some of their US diesel vehicles to emit more pollution than is permitted under the Clean Air Act.
Carlos Osorio/ AP/ File
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The Environmental Protection Agency has accused Fiat Chrysler of not disclosing software that allowed some of their US diesel vehicles to emit more pollution than is permitted under the Clean Air Act. On Thursday, the EPA announced that it had issued a Fiat Chrysler a “notice of violation” that applies to about 104,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram pickup trucks from the 2014 through 2016 model years.

Pieces of software known as “defeat devices” can detect when vehicles are being tested for emissions in a lab, switching the engines to a low-emissions setting that is not used on the road. German automaker Volkswagen used devices like these to cheat emissions tests on approximately 580,000 vehicles sold in the United States. On Wednesday, the US Department of Justice ordered Volkswagen to pay fines totaling $4.3 billion, and filed criminal charges against six of the company’s executives.

As the VW scandal unfolded last March, GreenCarReports’s John Voelcker wrote, “Denials by executives that the company did anything wrong or illegal – after its own engineers had admitted to the EPA that VW deliberately lied and deceived regulators and the public for eight years – haven't helped” to restore the company’s image. 

Volkswagen’s problems began in 2006, when an engineering team began developing a diesel engine to meet tough new US emissions tests, which led to the creation of a “defeat device.” In 2014, researchers found discrepancies between lab emissions and road emissions for VW diesel cars.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged six VW executives with conspiring to hide these findings. “Volkswagen’s attempts to dodge emissions standards and import falsely certified vehicles into the country represent an egregious violation of our nation’s environmental, consumer protection and financial laws,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

Fiat Chrysler’s executives have denied any attempt to mislead regulators. Instead, they point out that the company shared information about its admissions technology with the EPA, and proposed changes in response to the agency’s concerns.  “There was never any intent of creating conditions that were designed to defeat the testing process,” Fiat Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne said, according to Reuters.

When the EPA first raised concerns about emissions, the Italian-controlled multinational car company recalled vehicles with one particular piece of emissions-related software. The EPA says it has found at least eight software pieces that could control a vehicle’s emissions.

The EPA is investigating whether these emissions control devices could constitute illegal “defeat devices.” If that were proven, Fiat Chrysler could face fines of $44,539 per vehicle.

This report includes content from Reuters and the Associated Press.