Dirty Secrets: Carriers call for emissions crackdown

by Eric Berard

TORONTO, Ont. — Clean air comes at a cost, and it involves the emissions-related changes to exhaust systems and engines, sometimes introducing added maintenance costs and reduced fuel economy in the process.

That’s led to one of the trucking industry’s worst-kept dirty secrets. Many truck owners are reprogramming electronic control modules to bypass SCR (selective catalytic reduction) systems, which reduce unwanted NOx by introducing diesel exhaust fluid to the combustion process.

Opacity tests help to spot issues with diesel particulate filters, but a focus on NOx is electronic.

Aside from causing environmental harm, the changes put compliant carriers at a competitive disadvantage — and a growing number of carriers are sounding the alarm.

“People know where the locations are that will alter emission controls. And they know where to find them,” says Scott Tilley, president of Oakville, Ont.-based Tandet Group. “Anybody that is avoiding emissions controls is unfairly competing in the marketplace. Their actions give them the opportunity to lower pricing and make the same margins as what we might do with trucks that are properly running emissions controls.”

Quebec Trucking Association (QTA), president and CEO Marc Cadieux couldn’t agree more. “Knowing that we have people cheating the system and avoiding maintenance and other operation costs by trickery gets irritating,” he says.

They’re among the concerns that recently led the Canadian Trucking Alliance to call on the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) for a crackdown on emissions-related rules. And the council, which includes regulators from across Canada, added the topic to the agenda for its annual meeting scheduled June 3-6.

A crackdown isn’t without its challenges, though. Roadside inspectors can use a regular opacity test to spot those who bypass a diesel particulate filter. But the latest emissions-related changes have focused on reducing invisible and odorless nitrogen oxides (NOx). The only way to efficiently and quickly determine if an electronic control module has been reprogrammed to bypass such rules is to use a scan tool – similar to the way that inspectors in Ontario and Quebec check to see if  speed limiters are in place and in working order. Many enforcement agencies in Canada still lack these devices.

Emissions-related inspections in certified shops become somewhat obsolete in many provinces because related checklists focus on leaks that could infiltrate the cab. Granted, Canada’s National Safety Code requires that inspectors reject a truck if “there is evidence that any part of the DPF or any related regeneration system has been bypassed, defeated, disabled, improperly modified, removed or is missing”, but that’s virtually impossible to spot without adequate tools.

Ontario’s Environment Ministry says it is “aware of the selective catalytic reduction [SCR/urea] fraud situation.” Its officers are equipped with the readers to check the systems as well.

Dealer service dilemma

Truck dealer service managers face a dilemma when a deleted trucks show up at their shop for maintenance or repair. They have a business to keep profitable, but fixing an illegally modified engine could lead to trouble with the manufacturer and the law.

Today’s Trucking randomly called service managers representing three different Class 8 brands in three different provinces. The consensus seems to be that they will work on SCR-tampered trucks as long as it doesn’t involve any engine-related tasks. Those who do accept work on a tampered engine say they won’t touch the aftertreatment system because of the illegal nature of deletions, and claim that customers are told right from the start that engine work is unlikely to be covered by a warranty because of the tampering.

Operational costs of non-compliance

Losing warranty coverage is the first issue that emissions cheaters face. Some shops that modify these engines even publish disclaimers on their websites where they clearly point out: “All product manufacturer warranty claims must be performed by the customer through the product manufacturer.”

Warranty coverage will likely be denied in the case of a claim on a tampered engine. “We strongly discourage ECU tampering because attempts to bypass the designed emissions systems can cause illegal non-compliance with federal regulations, adversely affect performance, and violate vehicle warranty, says John Moore, Volvo Trucks North America’s product marketing manager – powertrain.

Darren Gosbee, vice-president powertrain and advanced engineering at Navistar concurs. “By making untested or unvalidated changes, you’re potentially risking the engine itself,” he says.

Cummins also insists on results that have been scientifically validated. “We base all the reliability on our internal validation that’s done on fully emissionized components,” says Clint Garrett, heavy duty product manager. “The priority for the majority of customers in North America is reliability, uptime.”

And uptime can be jeopardized by ECU tampering. The most common problem would be derated engines when the electronics identify that something is wrong in the programming.

“For example, if you chose to undo a temperature sensor, a NOx sensor, a [particulate matter] sensor or even the DEF [diesel exhaust fluid] injector — and if you just attempted to unplug them — the first thing that would happen is the diagnostic system would recognize that the system has been unplugged and you would go to the first level of inducement,” says Gosbee. That first level is a light on the dash and a significant loss of power. If the issue is left unattended, a de-rated engine can lead to a truck crawling at less than 10 km/h.

Cummins’ Garrett also refers to loss of power when fault codes are detected. “This derate can occur over a specific time interval or with the key on/off cycle. Meaning, a driver could experience a significant reduction in speed and an increased risk of downtime for the engine system and vehicle,” he warns.

“The guys [SCR cheaters] risk doing more harm to themselves than to help their business,” says Norbert Demers, president of Transport OSI, a 27-truck fleet headquartered in Bécancour, Qué. “Yet, I’m aware that an owner-operator might not think the same way I do as a fleet owner and manager.”

Demers also points out that such illegal tampering can drastically affect a truck’s resale value. “There’s no guarantee that it can be reprogrammed back to standards with the fuel economy it’s supposed to have,” he says.

Even when it’s possible to get a deleted truck back to legal standards, the bill can be massive – in the $10,000-to-$15,000 range. The regen module alone – combining the DPF and Diesel Oxidation Catalyst – would cost $6,000 to $7,000. Add to that the cost of a brand new ECU if the tampering involved amateur welding that damaged the circuitry.

Those numbers are consistent with what’s been observed in Europe. In its March 9, 2018 issue, the French trucking magazine Transport Info evaluated the cost of such repairs at about $10,500. That’s without counting the revenue losses caused by the truck being stuck in the shop for its “emissions redemption”.

There are also less-tangible costs, such the threat of losing a customer who doesn’t want to work with a carrier known for environmental offences.

Heavy fines, surprise visits, jail time

Currently in Quebec, tampering with anti-pollution systems can result in fines ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 for an individual, and up to $600,000 for a commercial business. “Enough to shut down a company,” says QTA’s Cadieux.

Ontario’s Environment Ministry says its officers conduct “unannounced, risk-based inspections” of heavy-duty diesel shops across the province. “Officers review and examine the maintenance and repair records of the vehicles to determine environmental compliance. Officers also work to ensure the shops have procedures in place to identify, record, and remedy any vehicle emission issues,” a spokesperson said.

Penalties are severe in Ontario, too. Individuals face fines up to $50,000 for an initial offence and up to $100,000 plus a year in jail for subsequent offences. Corporations are subject to fines up to $250,000 for a first offence and up to $500,000 for subsequent offences. For more-serious offences, such as the provision of false or misleading information, individuals face fines from $5,000 to $4 million and up to five years jail for an initial offence; corporations are subject to fines from $25,000 to $6 million for a first offence. As well, corporate directors can also be held responsible for actions of the corporation for certain offences.

Isn’t that punishment too severe for an average owner-operator or small fleet that’s simply struggling to making ends meet? Tandet’s Tilley doesn’t think so.

“That’s suggesting that, if somebody who’s having a hard time making ends meet because they’ve got bills, it’s OK if they go rob their groceries from the grocery store,” he says. “It’s still illegal. They are removing components that are designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and particulates into the air. The country has determined that that is the law and they’re breaking the law.”

  • a previous version of this article was updated to reflect the dates of the CCMTA meeting.


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