Who’s to blame for automotive OEMs cheating?

car exhaustEver since Volkswagen was caught cheating with its emissions software, a rash of accusations and lawsuits have targeted nearly all automotive OEMs with regard to fudged numbers.

In May, it was reported that the U.S. government is suing Fiat Chrysler, alleging that some diesel pickup trucks and Jeep SUVs cheated on emissions tests through “software-based features,” something that the company vehemently denies.

A second lawsuit filed just two days later in the U.S. District Court in Detroit against General Motors alleged that “GM pickup trucks with Duramax diesel engines have three devices on them that are rigged to allow more pollution on the road than during treadmill tests in the EPA laboratory,” according to an Associated Press (AP) report. Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is Robert Bosch LLC, the manufacturer of GM’s electronic diesel controls.

The AP said that the complaint was filed on behalf of two truck owners against GM, alleging the devices were installed on diesel engines in the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra heavy-duty pickups. Two of the devices reduce emissions controls when the air temperature is above or below the range in government lab tests. The other reduces the level of emissions controls when the trucks are running continuously for 200 to 500 seconds. Government tests don’t last that long, the lawsuit says.

An article in the June 2017 issue of Consumer Reports said that vehicle owners filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Diego, accusing General Motors of “deceptively marketing and advertising some Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia or Buick Enclave vehicles by overstating the gas mileage since at least 2009.” GM had agreed to compensate owners of those vehicles after “admitting it had incorrectly calculated the fuel economy on the vehicles,” but apparently that wasn’t enough to satisfy the owners who subsequently filed the suit.

Fiat and VW were sued in 2014 for exaggerated fuel economy numbers, and in 2014 Hyundai and Kia settled a mileage lawsuit.

So who is really to blame for so-called overstated mileage claims and diesel pollution controls that don’t live up to their claims? Are vehicle OEMs really trying to pull the wool over consumers’—and the government’s—eyes? Or is something else at work here?

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., an editor at the Wall Street Journal, wrote in an Aug. 26 editorial (“The Coming Global Car Wreck”) that “dieselgate is not the fruit of an industry cartel” (as German automakers were accused of in Der Spiegel magazine articles) “but of politicians ignoring cost and benefit.” Jenkins said that what the magazine’s lengthy article neglected to point out is that “Germany’s dieselgate and associated scandals arise entirely from European politicians’ politically correct pursuit of meaningless reductions in CO2.”

Whenever I’ve attended a conference that involves automotive lightweighting and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, people speak “off the record” about the coerciveness of the regulatory environment. The industry “chafes at the bit” of regulations that they know are weighted heavily on the cost side but have very few benefits—if any—on the environmental side.

What consumers don’t know—but should—is that mileage and fuel economy numbers are achieved under tightly controlled conditions in the laboratory and on test tracks. It’s not real-world stuff. Consumers shouldn’t expect their monster vehicles to get the same mileage for them out on the freeway or traversing mountainous roads. Suing automakers just doesn’t make sense. Automotive manufacturing has been turned into a political game in which everyone—from OEMs to suppliers, including molders and moldmakers—are at risk of being accused of fraud.

Jenkins notes that dieselgate explains how the automotive industry manages to produce vehicles that accommodate “political meddling” and coercion in Germany. “Once politicians and regulators decided to make diesel the star of their fake climate show, they turned to providing loopholes to ensure their cars remained marketable.” Ultimately, automakers around the globe discovered the same methodology to be able to sell vehicles.

The next big “magic act” for governments “from Berlin to Beijing to Scaramento,” writes Jenkins, will be “how to preserve their car industries and jobs while simultaneously mandating that carmakers produce electric vehicles that can only be sold to the public at a steep loss in a world where oil is $50 a barrel and gasoline engines continue to make impressive gains.” This is the “global car wreck” that Jenkins predicts.

That is especially true when everyone knows it takes fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal to create the energy needed when millions of people who have been coerced to buy “environmentally friendly” vehicles plug in every night. Perhaps that is why the third big “magic act” in Jenkins’ scenario is the “ride-sharing” fad, in which you and five of your closest friends “share” a vehicle, thus reducing the number of cars that will need to be plugged in.

Innovation is always good, and real innovation evolves in response to the needs of mass consumers. It’s less effective when consumers are told what kinds of cars they must buy in response to the myth of helping the planet, and that they must have certain features they never knew they really wanted. People develop a resistance to some of these features that, while they may be possible, turn out to be impractical. 

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