Fiat Joins The Diesel Emissions Cheating Club

The diesel emissions cheating club is getting larger all the time. It started with Volkswagen last September, but the list of companies who decided to play fast and loose with government regulations is getting longer every day. Now we can add Fiat to that list.

Fiat joins diesel emissions cheating club

Until the Volkswagen scandal broke, the prevailing model was for regulators to impose standards and let the car companies tell them if they were in compliance. That’s a strategy akin to setting the fox to guard the hen house. Today, regulators profess to be shocked — SHOCKED — that some companies decided to lie about whether their cars met the regulations.

As a result, many government agencies are now conducting their own testing. What they are finding is disturbing. Last week, Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority issued a statement that no manufacturers were in full compliance with existing regulations as far as it could tell. Apparently, many car companies program the emissions controls on their diesel engines to turn off when ambient temperatures drop below a certain point. For Mercedes, that point is 50 degrees F. For Opel, the magic number is 62 degrees F.

No one has offered a satisfactory explanation why society should be blessed with higher emissions just because its not beach weather outside. But testing is always done indoors in temperature controlled laboratories. Regulators never thought about driving in the real world. The official explanation is that lower temperatures cause premature wear to emission control systems.

Now, German authorities say they have reason to believe Fiat also programmed its diesel powered cars to cheat. The Volkswagen cheating strategy was devilishly complex. The onboard computers were taught to recognize when a testing procedure was in progress. The tests are precisely scripted. So many minutes at this speed in this gear.

Every test is exactly the same. Once the computer recognized the pattern, it would instruct the emissions control system to switch to compliance mode. VW engineers even went so far as to include input from the steering wheel position sensor. Since the wheel doesn’t move during a test, no wheel movement means a test might be in progress. Time to go into full compliance mode.

Fiat did not deem it necessary to resort to such extreme measures. According to a report in Autocar, it simply took advantage of the fact that the test protocol is precisely 20 minutes long. It programmed its NOx emissions controls to shut off after 22 minutes. Just a few lines of code. No muss, no fuss. Reportedly, Bosch blew the whistle on Fiat to the German authorities, who then verified the workaround during their own testing.

This could get interesting. Once suppliers start throwing their own customers under the bus, a full fledged feeding frenzy could ensue. An editorial in today’s edition of Autocar asks whatever happened to morality in business. Apparently the writer never read any books by Ayn Rand while he was in college.


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.