Diesel and Defeat Devices


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By Don Dunphy

March 2020

Experts have never disputed the efficiency derived from diesel fuel or the additional number of miles-per-tank that “burning oil” offered. What was always a sticking point was the long-held perception of diesel as a dirty fuel belching out dark soot -- a stigmatization that caught hold in the U.S. during the 1970s oil crisis. U.S. consumers moved to diesel technology to beat the high price and low availability of gas but were disenchanted by noisy equipment and pollution. That wasn’t necessarily the case on European roads where diesel had been a mainstay.
Throughout the aughts, and especially in the throes of the 2008 economic downturn with jobs on the line and fuel prices rising, diesel returned to the list of options. Thanks to new equipment, the so-called clean diesel movement gained ground. The promises were enticing: more thorough fuel burn, greater mileage, fewer trips to the pump, and crucially…cleaner output. The promise was that new diesel equipment bested even the most stringent emissions levels required by the California Air Board. By and large, diesel did remarkably well in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But things changed in 2015.


Until the EPA determines exactly what they want from the OEMs – regardless of which OEM it is – it is going to be very difficult to get diesels certified for sale in the United States.

Opinions on diesel have calcified, depending on who you speak to. Those who believe the fuel type to have merit despite controversy still feel this way. Those who felt the fuel was not an acceptable alternative remain unmoved. And the circumstances that have called diesel and its equipment into question have not altered these positions.
Defeat Device

On September 18, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a violation against automaker Volkswagen that would once again hinder diesel's ascent, and the action occurred almost by chance.
European diesels have had considerable issues combating nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, a dominant pollutant emerging from diesel usage. These aren’t as visible a pollutant as the black soot of old, but NOx has been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems primarily because of its super-fine particles. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has been integral in identifying the worst offenders. For the sake of having a control in head-to-head comparisons, the organization tested European models against presumed cleaner U.S. counterparts.

“The U.S. has more strict emissions standards… (Vehicles) have to meet supplemental requirements, and higher durability requirements,” said Anup Bandivadekar, Passenger Vehicles Program Director for the ICCT. “As a result, the on-road performance of U.S. passenger diesels should have been better.”
The test results shocked the analysts. “(They) showed at least these two vehicles involved with our testing as actually having incredibly high emissions output.” More curiously, a third diesel – the BMW X5 – showed it could have real-world emissions of NOx that were low and consistent with test cycle requirements. But how were the vehicles that failed the testing able to pass the standard motor vehicle protocols in every DMV in the country? 

Reports indicate the engine control was programmed as a "defeat device." When equipment was applied to the vehicle's exhaust during testing, programming dropped the system into a low-emission compliant mode. Most inspections happen under controlled circumstances and fuel economy isn't a consideration. Once these cars were finished with inspections, their systems reverted to "efficiency" mode. 
Defeat devices are not new, and are not restricted to diesel vehicles. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's August 1998 newsletter, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly announced major settlements that year with American Honda Motor Company and Ford Motor Company, respectively, for  disabling the misfire monitoring device on 1.6 million 1996 and 1997 model year Accords, Civics, Preludes, Odysseys, and Acuras, as well as 1995 Honda Civics; and for installing a device that defeated the emission-control system in  60,000 1997 Ford Econoline vans. 

Longterm Damage

The shadow this incident casts has done harm to the reputation of the clean diesel enterprise. London, England has formally announced plans to move away from diesel.  Even Europe is looking in new directions. Paris, France is instigating a ban on the fuel, culminating by the year 2020. In the U.S., even before the scandal, diesel penetration in the automotive market was minimal: never more than one percent by most estimates. The scandal poses more difficulties to widespread technology adoption.
NOx filtration systems can work, as other cars have proven, but much as the memory of diesel with black smoke trails in the 1970s hangs on, so now might the belief that all diesel vehicles are suspect.
“The term ‘clean diesel,’ let’s be honest, is a marketing term,” said Writer Bradley Berman. His article “What the VW Scandal Means for Clean Diesel” appeared in the MIT Technology Review in 2015. “Technology advances like low-sulfur diesel and after-treatment systems made diesel cleaner, but was it ever really clean? A hybrid electric car or a fully-electric EV is so much cleaner, you can’t compete.”

“If a consumer is hesitant about clean diesel and feels there’s something endemic to the technology because of VW, I would point folks in the direction of new products certified by the EPA,” said Ezra Finkin Director, Policy and External Relations for the Diesel Technology Forum. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caught a lot of flak for not identifying the offending vehicles soon enough, and are now under enormous scrutiny. I don’t think they would now agree to (certifying diesels) if they felt there was something inherently wrong with the technology.”
The added scrutiny brought on by the EPA might have made a bad situation worse. “Until the EPA determines exactly what they want from the OEMs – regardless of which OEM it is – it is going to be very difficult to get diesels certified for sale in the United States,” said Fleet Professional and NAFA Regular Member Mark Petersen. If the manufacturers cannot get the all-important certifications with minimal pain, they could be more inclined to leave diesel behind altogether. 
For fleets that run sedans, primarily for sales purposes, this event has had a double whammy effect. Purchasers now need to be that much more suspicious of claims being offered to them. And their local OEM representatives who sold the vehicles in good faith are now in the unenviable position of being the public face of a deception in which they had absolutely no involvement. 

Berman doesn’t deny that there’s a place for diesel in United States transportation, mainly in a work truck capacity. “Manufacturers have adapted diesel primarily for its efficiency. And if we’re talking about sedan fleets, EVs aren’t a total panacea. They take time to charge and still can’t handle long trips. If we’re looking into the near-future, hydrogen allows for quick refueling and is ‘zero emissions,’ but there are only a couple of fueling stations on the east coast, a couple dozen on the west coast, and it costs millions to build one. There’s no free lunch, really.” 
Finkin asserted, for fleets that are running medium to heavy duty vehicles, diesel remains ideal. “The powertrain offers low emissions, held to the same standard as gasoline, but delivers enormous fuel savings and torque benefits. For fleets looking to save money and perform work, diesel is the powertrain of choice.”

Retroactive Actions

A sedan fleet could have a multitude of reasons why diesel vehicles were added to the selector list, all of them legitimate. Most decisions like “which cars to buy” tend not to become topics of public discussion. Vehicles touting certain sustainability benefits, on the other hand, often are included in a publicity strategy. What happens when, instead of curbing pollutants a fleet’s cars put into the air, those pollutants are doubled or tripled?
“When the vehicle was purchased it was purchased for the right reasons,” said Bryan Flansburg, CAFM®, Captain of Longmont Emergency Unit and NAFA Senior Vice President. “If your organization has a policy on purchasing a sustainable fleet then a good recommendation would be to replace these vehicles…however it would be more of a financial decision. If the vehicle manufacturer is required to fund upgrades to the system in order to reduce emissions then you would be obligated to complete the process.”

Petersen said that, until a fix or a buy-back is offered for the vehicles in question, a fleet is not in a position to immediately shelve them. “(But there are drivers saying) ‘…We’re selling clean energy solutions and can’t go to a client or potential client driving diesels that, by all accounts, are polluting sixty percent more than the average car.’ If a fleet has drivers that have brought to the organization’s attention that vehicles are causing public relations issues with prospective clients, it’s advisable to switch those out with more energy-efficient cars.”
If a fleet has been caught up in the diesel defeat device issue, Petersen said that pragmatism must rule the day. “Pull the car so that it won’t stand in the way of your employees doing what they need to do. Fleet’s here to help the sales department, not to be a detriment to sales.”
There is no bright line that points to whether diesel is or is not now viable. To some, a very poor and not unprecedented decision is to blame. For others, the problem is endemic. 
The real damage comes in the form of those who have not yet formed an opinion either way, because the scene simply looks bad. That diesel fueled technology should be reduced to crisis control is disappointing to ICCT’s Bandivadekar. “There’s nothing inherently damaging as far as (diesel) technology is concerned, but the reputation of the technology certainly has been sullied. (Consumer) confidence has been shaken, and that’s unfortunate.”

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