The Diesel Emissions Scandal: What Cars Can You Trust?

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It looks like the conspiracy charges against Oliver Schmidt, Volkswagen’s top emissions compliance executive in the U.S., aren't the end of potential emissions cheats by diesel-engine carmakers. A few days after Schmidt's arrest by the FBI last week, regulators announced that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had not disclosed software that hid regulation-breaking excesses of nitrogen oxide emissions.

The allegations by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board cover about 104,000 diesel-engine Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram 1500 trucks sold in the U.S. with the EcoDiesel 3.0-liter V-6 engine.

Fiat denies trying to skirt Clean Air Act rules. The firm has talked with regulators for months “to explain its emissions control technology,” according to a company statement, and floated possible software solutions “that could be implemented in these vehicles immediately to further improve emissions performance.”

The new case “follows directly from the work that we did in helping to expose Volkswagen,” Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, told Men's Journal. “One week after the EPA announced its notice of violation in September 2015 against Volkswagen, it informed car manufacturers that the EPA would be conducting additional testing as part of certification. That would include testing during normal operations, which before then had not been the case.”

Fiat failed to report eight pieces of software to regulators, says Kodjak. “The open question is whether those are illegal defeat devices versus justifiable engine calibrations.”

Another is whether automakers' dreams of a mass market for diesel-fueled passenger cars can survive new consumer doubts. “[With] VW, we know for a fact, the defeat devices were in the global fleet in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere,” said Tyson Slocum, the director of the energy program at Public Citizen. French, German, and U.K. regulators are also at varied stages of investigating Fiat, and France is probing Renault's diesel technologies as well.

VW, possibly Fiat, potentially Renault... just how deep does this emissions cheating go?

U.S. diesel emissions standards remain reliable, says Kodjak, because they have “passed not just the traditional test, but also the enhanced testing that EPA now does on all vehicles, to be sure their emissions are just as clean under normal use as under testing.”

Luke Tonachel, who directs the clean fuels and vehicles project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that consumers can continue to trust emissions ratings. “From what I've read, some of the Fiat Chrysler vehicles that were subject to this notice of violation were vehicles already in production when the VW scandal broke.”