The crackdown on aftermarket defeat devices on vehicles

Recent enforcement efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have resulted in a marked upswing in cases — civil and criminal — against parts manufacturers and installers of aftermarket defeat devices on vehicles, including some less than obvious targets.

Aftermarket parts are replacement or additional vehicle or engine parts not made by the original equipment manufacturer. Most aftermarket parts do not violate the Clean Air Act, but some are designed to reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of required emissions controls.

“Business owners need to ensure their company-owned vehicles and engines are legal,” says Julie Domike, shareholder at Babst Calland. “Many of these enforcement cases have been against companies or individuals that produce or install ‘tuners,’ engine control module reprogrammers that disable emission control systems with preloaded software (tunes). These defeat devices are obvious enforcement targets. However, other devices or software could also fall in this category; therefore, liability could extend to other aftermarket suppliers.”

Smart Business spoke with Domike and Gina Falaschi, associate at Babst Calland, about the EPA’s enforcement efforts.

Where might businesses be at risk?

Mechanics sometimes look to increase fuel economy, boost the performance of the vehicle, reduce maintenance costs, or reduce vehicle downtime associated with routine maintenance, such as regenerating diesel particulate filters. The illegal methods of doing this involve removing or disabling emissions control devices on vehicles, such as the diesel particulate filter, exhaust gas recirculation valve and selective catalytic reduction system. Because removing vehicle hardware will result in a check engine notification or may put the vehicle into ‘limp home’ mode, severely limiting power, these changes must be accompanied by an illegal alteration of the software to override its response to missing or disabled hardware.

It is important to realize when employees add aftermarket defeat devices to company vehicles, businesses could have significant Clean Air Act liability, and right now the EPA is actively looking for these violations.

Why is the EPA so concerned?

The EPA has significant enforcement power under the Clean Air Act to ensure that national air quality standards are maintained. The EPA is particularly concerned about the increase in air pollution from the transportation sector. While EPA enforcement against stationary sources has recently decreased, the EPA has increased enforcement against vehicle and equipment manufacturers in both criminal and civil venues. When vehicles are tampered with, they have significantly increased emissions, especially nitrogen oxide (NOx), which contributes to ground level ozone, a criteria pollutant regulated by the EPA.

The EPA reports its enforcement efforts have uncovered over half a million vehicles that have been tampered with, potentially increasing emissions by the equivalent of 9 million trucks.

Who exactly could be liable?

The EPA has historically brought civil enforcement actions against vehicle and engine manufacturers for engine software that allowed NOx emissions to increase. The agency, however, has expanded enforcement to manufacturers, retailers and installers of tuners, as well as individuals who remove emissions control systems from vehicles, especially trucks. Those who modify vehicle fleets by adding equipment may also violate the Clean Air Act by causing excess emissions due to weight increases. The EPA sees this as tampering.

With the EPA’s current emphasis on enforcement, retailers could be subject to civil enforcement for selling aftermarket defeat devices. Additionally, those who manufacture and sell devices that they know or should know are being used to tamper with emissions control equipment could be targeted by EPA enforcement.

What action should business owners take?

Be aware of the issue; ensure it is not happening in your organization or with your vehicles. Inform your employees that this is not condoned behavior and if anyone has touched a vehicle in this fashion, it needs to be fixed. Beyond that, add education about the Clean Air Act, and what’s permissible under it, to your company’s environment, health and safety training.

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