EPA Alleges FCA Broke the Law on Diesel Emissions

14Jeep_Grand-Cherokee-Diesel_ES_01.jpg 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel | photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — The Volkswagen Group may not be the only automaker that broke the law over diesel emissions. The EPA alleged today that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has violated the Clean Air Act with engine software that allows excess nitrogen oxide emissions in diesel versions of two popular models.

Related: VW Settles Diesel Criminal Charges

Nitrogen oxide is the same smog-forming pollutant at the heart of Volkswagen’s diesel scandal, which affects some 550,000 cars in the U.S. and many more internationally. The EPA served FCA a notice of violation for failing to disclose eight separate auxiliary emissions control devices — AECDs for short, the same components that constitute “defeat devices” for Volkswagen — in the 2014-2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Ram 1500 pickup truck with diesel 3.0-liter V-6 engines.

FCA is the automaker behind the Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep and Ram brands. In total, the EPA’s allegations affect some 104,000 vehicles.

AECDs can affect a car’s emissions system based on situational factors like engine load or heat. They constitute illegal “defeat devices” only if they reduce the effectiveness of emissions controls outside of testing parameters and are not necessary for safety or engine startup.

Both the EPA and the California Air Resources Board are investigating the matter, but regulators stopped short of calling the AECDs in the Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 defeat devices. However, officials said the software does enable the affected cars to meet legal standards during emissions tests but then emit more nitrogen oxide under “normal operation and use.”

EPA officials wouldn’t say how much nitrogen oxide the implicated FCA vehicles emitted — only that they were above legal limits and “highly dependent on operating conditions,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

FCA responded in a statement that it’s “disappointed that the EPA has chosen to issue a notice of violation” and that it will work with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump to present its side. FCA said that it “looks forward to the opportunity to meet with the EPA’s enforcement division and representatives of the new administration to demonstrate that FCA U.S.’s emissions control strategies are properly justified and thus are not ‘defeat devices’ under applicable regulations and to resolve this matter expeditiously.”

Giles told reporters in a conference call this morning that the agency is “still investigating the nature and impact of these AECDs.” But FCA did not disclose the devices to the EPA when it applied for environmental certification on the diesel Ram and Grand Cherokee, she added.

The burden of proof is on FCA to demonstrate these AECDs aren’t defeat devices, she added, and meetings with the automaker so far have not produced a satisfactory explanation that they aren’t. What’s more, automakers are required to disclose all AECDs to the EPA — something FCA failed to do, officials said today.

FCA said it believes the diesel V-6s are compliant and has provided “voluminous information” to regulators to “explain its emissions control technology.” The automaker said it even proposed “extensive software changes to our emissions control strategies” to improve emissions that could be installed immediately.

If you own an affected vehicle, the news has no immediate effect. Janet McCabe, principal deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the diesel Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 “continue to be safe and legal to drive. If you own one of these vehicles, no immediate action is required from you.”

Serious penalties could apply to FCA, however. Although today’s violation notice doesn’t carry any legal weight to force a stop-sale on the affected cars, the automaker could face fines of up to $44,539 per vehicle in violation, officials said today. That would total a maximum $4.6 billion in penalties alone, excluding any buyback program or recalls that also might result. (That’s no small amount, but Volkswagen’s recall costs are reportedly up to nearly $21 billion by comparison.)

Shortly after the outset of Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal, the EPA announced it would spot-check other diesel cars for compliance with the Clean Air Act. Regulators said today that many other diesel cars have passed such evaluations, but the Ram 1500 and Grand Cherokee did not.

This doesn’t appear to be FCA’s first brush with diesel emissions. Owners reportedly filed a class-action lawsuit against FCA on Dec. 1, 2016, for excess diesel emissions in the Ram 1500 and Grand Cherokee, and on Dec. 23 for excess diesel emissions on the heavy-duty Ram 2500 and 3500.

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