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Do cheaters win, if they’re cheating EPA?

Do cheaters win, if they’re cheating EPA?

With a second round of increasingly stringent truck fuel efficiency standards and greenhouse gas limits in the works, courtesy of the Obama administration, the recent revelation that Volkswagen has been cheating the EPA for years on diesel-powered automobile emissions raises the question: What might this mean for trucking? And, just for argument’s sake, would you cheat the EPA if you could?

The basics of the VW story, as I understand the early reports, are that after more than a year of dodging questions from the U.S. federal government concerning discrepancies between EPA certification results and real-world performance, the company admitted last week the engines had been programmed to run clean only for the dyno tests—and this has been going on since 2009.

VW said Tuesday that some 11 million vehicles worldwide were built with the software modification—up considerably from the 500,000 or so cars in the U.S. the company originally confessed to. As a result, VW warned investors that it’s socking away more than $7 billion in the third quarter to cover the cost of servicing the cars and trying to win back customers’ trust.

With the stock price falling some 17 percent Monday, shareholders are already out nearly $18 billion, and EPA fines could match that amount.

The problem, which is a familiar one for truckers, is that engines tuned to drastically reduce NOx emissions just don’t perform as well. But, apparently, rather than falsely advertise the power and performance of its “Clean Diesel” engine (something competitors would surely test for themselves), somebody at VW made the call to have their cake and eat it too.

The corporate memo-trail “whodunnit” will, no doubt, occupy the world’s business press (to say nothing of consumer products lawyers and environmental activists) for some time. On the purely trucking side, it’s interesting to contemplate what might have been: VW has been rumored to be in the market for a North American truck maker to complement its substantial piece of the EU market (it controls MAN and Scania). It doesn’t look like the company’s going to have the ready cash to buy an American OEM any time soon, however.

But I’m even more interested in how VW did it, and got away with it for as long as it did.

So far—and it’s early on—I’ve seen an interesting analysis from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization “defending civil liberties in the digital world.”

In short, EFF is all about individual freedom and institutional transparency. So they’ve never liked the way automakers make the code in their ECUs proprietary. Manufacturers insist the code and data have to be protected for competitive reasons, but EFF argues that the protections are decidedly anti-competitive: The restrictions hamper outside innovation in the aftermarket, while also limiting repair services to those shops with proprietary equipment.

EFF has petitioned the U.S. government to allow independent researchers access to vehicle software without running afoul of digital copyright law. But, in fighting the request, manufacturers insist that car owners would try to bypass emissions controls if ECU code was easily accessible. EPA likewise argued for the protection.

Of course, EFF is now crowing about Volkswagen. But I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the manufacturers and clean air enforcers have a point.

Truckers are nothing if not enterprising. More than a few mechanically inclined entrepreneurs have been caught marketing devices to defeat or bypass emissions controls. The lure, for trucking, is that such tampering actually pays off—especially compared to the modest return a passenger car owner might expect. 

And for those who've been around trucking for a bit, in October 1998 EPA and the Justice Department announced what was billed as "the largest Clean Air Act enforcement action in history," with seven heavy-duty diesel engine makers paying more than $1 billion for having installed devices to defeat engine controls.

It's still no stretch to imagine the competitive edge for an OEM who would program a bypass for you.

The good news, for any truckers concerned about their moral fiber, is that EPA’s GHG regs (in contrast to previous NOx reductions) will offer the benefit of improved fuel efficiency. That’s the plan, anyway. That and, nach Volkswagen, much tighter scrutiny from regulators once the rules are set.

We’ll see.

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