Fiat-Chrysler’s Diesel Debacle

At a time when Americans were just beginning to warm to the diesel engine, Volkswagen’s now infamous emissions fraud hobbled its acceptance once again. Then in January, news hit suggesting the German automaker wasn’t the only manufacture to fudge their results. Fiat-Chrysler was put under the microscope when independent emissions experts uncovered a serious discrepancy between lab and open road evaluations. Adding gravity to their findings, controlled tests at the University of California and the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, Germany, revealed evidence of potential defeat devices in a Euro-spec diesel Fiat 500X. In those controlled evaluations, the Fiat’s engine began producing excessive levels of emissions 26 minutes after the commencement of the test. Most emission test procedures don’t exceed that time frame, which makes for a damning bit of coincidence at the very least.

As it happened with VW, the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice have stepped in, although specifics of those discussions have been kept undisclosed. Whereas the German automaker’s deception was egregious enough to warrant the dismissal of half a dozen high level executives, fines measured in the tens of billions, and a few employees facing criminal charges, the Fiat-Chrysler debacle seems far less scurrilous.

The VW case was not only a classic hand-in-cookie-jar example of busted, it involved over 600,000 automobiles spanning more than a dozen years of auto sales. By contrast, the Fiat-Chrysler offense, if there is proven to even be one, only involves 100,000 vehicles. Specifically it includes RAM 1500 pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees sold between 2016 and 2017 model years. It is also unclear how systemic the deception was, and again, if there even was one.

As of this month, additional details have been made known, mostly from the independent researchers evaluating the emissions outputs of the two vehicles in question. According to Dan Carder, a highly respected expert at the University of West Virginia and the man to call the first foul on VW, the RAM 1500 produced 20 times the allowed limit of nitrogen oxide while on the road and the Grand Cherokee nearly 5 times the limit. Not to say those are acceptable numbers, but they pale in comparison to those of VW. A handful of their engines were proven to emit more than 56 times the allowed level of nitrogen oxide. It was also well established that there was substantial collusion underfoot within the German brand.

Unlike the previous scandal, Fiat-Chrysler will likely emerge from their troubles largely unscathed. The EPA has been working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board to reach an amendable resolution which not only best suits the environment, but invites as little disruption to vehicle owners as possible. To that end, Fiat-Chrysler is scheduled to modify all 100,000 vehicles sold with the failed engines. That fix should be nothing more than a software upgrade. How much it will alter performance is unclear.

If there’s any gasoline to be poured over this fire, it will likely come from Europe where emissions offenses are a hot topic. Fiat-Chrysler is already defending itself against strong accusations of foul play. In the best case scenario, the authorities will out the auto maker for sloppy science. It’s still possible they could be accused of blatant cheatery. Even then, the Italian-American company might escape the public flogging suffered by Volkswagen.

These are interesting times for car manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic. With our current administration’s efforts to detooth the EPA, and European authorities increasing emission controls, the future once again looks uncertain for the diesel engine in America. If only in the confidence of the consumer.

Christophe Noel is Expedition Portal's Editor and the Senior Editor for Overland Journal. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.