Dodge Ram pickup trucks sit on a lot at a dealership in Georgia. Federal and California officials have accused Fiat Chrysler of using rogue software to conceal air pollution emissions from 104,000 diesel vehicles. John Bazemore Associated Press file
Dodge Ram pickup trucks sit on a lot at a dealership in Georgia. Federal and California officials have accused Fiat Chrysler of using rogue software to conceal air pollution emissions from 104,000 diesel vehicles. John Bazemore Associated Press file

Business & Real Estate

Another diesel scandal; this time it’s Fiat Chrysler

By Dale Kasler

dkasler@sacbee.com

January 12, 2017 08:55 AM

Another automaker has been accused of rigging diesel vehicles to cheat on air-pollution regulations, prompting new investigations from the federal government and California’s air regulators.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board announced Thursday that 104,000 diesel Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram 1500 pickup trucks were equipped with rogue software that shut off their pollution control systems while the vehicles are on the road.

The cars were made by global conglomerate Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The carmaker issued a statement denying the allegations – and hinted that it expects to get better treatment from regulators once President-elect Donald Trump is in the White House.

No recalls have yet been announced while the investigations continue.

The announcement came a day after six Volkswagen executives were indicted on conspiracy charges amid allegations that they approved the installation of “defeat device” software on nearly 600,000 diesel cars sold in the United States since 2009, and then lied to federal and California regulators about it. The software allows the vehicles to pass their emissions tests but switches off the pollution controls when the cars are being driven.

Volkswagen has agreed to spend more than $19 billion on fines, pollution-abatement programs, repairs and repurchases of its tainted vehicles.

“Once again, a major automaker has failed to meet their legal obligations for vehicle certification and gotten caught,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, in a prepared statement.

Until the Volkswagen scandal erupted in late 2015, federal and state officials generally relied on lab testing to certify vehicles. Since then, the regulators have stepped up the inspection process to include road tests.

“(ARB) and U.S. EPA made a commitment to enhanced testing as the Volkswagen case developed, and this is a result of that collaboration,” Nichols said.

Carmakers need to get their vehicles certified by the EPA before they can be sold in the United States. California, whose air-quality standards are in some cases more stringent than the federal rules, has its own screening process. The ARB was instrumental in uncovering the Volkswagen diesel scandal.

The EPA said the 104,000 Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram trucks were sold during the 2014, 2015 and 2016 model years. About 14,000 of the vehicles were sold in California, state officials said.

“Failing to disclose software that affects emissions in a vehicle’s engine is a serious violation of the law,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator at the EPA, in a prepared statement.

The emissions controls can compromise fuel mileage and vehicle performance. With the controls switched off, the vehicles spew increased levels of nitrogen oxide, or NOx, a key element in smog.

The ARB said the Grand Cherokees and Rams “generate from five to 10 times the amount of NOx they are certified to emit.”

The case doesn’t appear to be as egregious as the Volkswagen matter. Fewer vehicles are involved, and ARB spokesman David Clegern said the software installed by Fiat Chrysler only switches off the pollution-control systems “at certain times under certain conditions.” By contrast, he said, Volkswagen’s rogue software turns off the pollution controls full time while the cars are on the road.

He added that California officials have stopped short of calling Fiat Chrysler’s software a “defeat device,” the term applied to Volkswagen’s software.

Nonetheless, he said Fiat Chrysler had a duty to disclose the existence of the software to regulators. The software was “not reported and (has) not been adequately explained,” he said.

No recalls have been announced, and in the meantime motorists can still buy, sell and register the suspected vehicles. Eventually, state officials said, they will make sure Fiat Chrysler “brings the vehicles into full compliance” with the air pollution regulations.

Fiat Chrysler officials flatly denied trying to trick regulators.

In a statement, the company’s U.S. subsidiary said its cars “meet all applicable regulatory requirements.” It added that it “looks forward to the opportunity to meet with the EPA’s enforcement division and representatives of the new administration to demonstrate that (the company’s) emissions control strategies are properly justified and thus are not ‘defeat devices.’ 

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler