EPA thinks the solution to diesel emissions problems lies in the past
The Environmental Protection Agency has raised an interesting question about technology. That question involves the inevitable problems that come when you try to shape fast-moving technological development with slow-moving government regulation.
At the end of the 1980s, EPA announced fairly stringent emissions standards for heavy-duty diesel engines and essentially told engine makers that they would have to invent the technology that would allow them to meet those standards. Manufacturers responded with electronic engine controls that have not only satisfied the requirements, but have also delivered major improvements in engine performance, durability, and fuel economy. Now, prodded by a number of environmental watchdog groups, EPA is saying that the technology is too good, that it sidesteps federal emissions requirements, and that manufacturers are violating the law even though all of their engines have been certified by the agency.
What's happened is that EPA designed a certification test cycle that mimics stop-and-go conditions. That's where emissions are highest for mechanically controlled engines, and EPA assumed that emissions for more fuel-efficient operating states such as steady highway speeds would be similar, if not better. In essence, they told engine makers to develop new technology to meet the law, but wrote enforcement procedures based on old technology.
The electronic controls are far more sophisticated than EPA anticipated. They can control combustion for low emissions during the types of conditions they experience under the test cycle, and then move to more fuel-efficient timing under more typical over-the-road conditions. It seemed like everyone won - the government was satisfied because the engines passed its tests, and engine users were happy because they were getting better fuel economy. The problem is that the engines produce substantially higher emissions when they're operating in that more fuel-efficient mode. The discrepancy was common knowledge, but EPA chose to ignore the issue until political pressure was applied earlier this year.
The simple solution is to change the test cycle, adjust engine controls accordingly, and get on with business. Nothing, however, is that simple when it comes to government regulation, especially environmental regulation. EPA apparently has decided that its current test is adequate and that the only problem is engine makers trying to "defeat" emissions controls with their technology. Their solution looks like it will involve substantial penalties for engines that meet every one of their emissions requirements, and perhaps recalls for electronically controlled diesels built after 1991. In other words, manufacturers will be punished for the crime of meeting EPA's own test requirements.
As Mack Trucks learned in June, if the engine makers don't like this solution, EPA is prepared to apply the full weight of regulatory enforcement powers granted by the Clean Air Act, even though those remedies were intended to punish intentional violations. The punitive fines proposed by EPA would cripple Mack or any other manufacturer.
If technology has outmoded the current test procedures, EPA should design new ones, but it shouldn't try to salvage the old test through the misuse of its regulatory power. It simply isn't fair to push manufacturers to develop new technology and then punish them because it's more effective than anticipated.