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LISTEN: A major Clean Air Act case wraps up in Michigan court

Blurred zoom image of traffic jam in the city at night
Adobe Stock
Blurred zoom image of traffic jam in the city at night

The Western District Court of Michigan ruled a Gaylord business knowingly violated the Clean Air Act when it disabled "environmental controls" on hundreds of diesel trucks.

Diesel Freak, a truck modifications company, was ordered to pay $750,000 in fines for reprogramming trucks to operate more efficiently, while releasing toxic emissions above legal limits.

WCMU's Teresa Homsi spoke with Randall Olson about modifying vehicle software — why it happens and when it crosses the line.

Olson has been a specialist with the vehicle diagnostics company, Opus IVS, for two years. He was not part of the investigation or court ruling.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Teresa Homsi: Can you start by explaining what it means to tune trucks and what environmental controls are on vehicles?

Randall Olson: When cars are built, the manufacturers of the vehicles have to make some decisions about how the engine is going to provide power to the rest of the vehicle, like how fast it's going to go and at what point it's going to shift. It has some electronic system monitoring the RPM and how much fuel intake you told the car to use.

If you're a guy who's got a truck and you decide to add a lift or bigger tires, you have to reprogram your truck, so it knows how to behave differently because it has non-stock components.

This is a totally normal part of after-market vehicle activity. There are some that are totally legitimate, and then there are other ways where you can bypass emissions laws.

There are components inside of a vehicle that determine the kind of fuel mixture which changes the kind of performance in a vehicle. You can modify that to make it dirtier. You can modify that to make it cleaner.

Smoke from a truck exhaust pipe
Ruben de Rijcke
Smoke from a truck exhaust pipe

TH: If you're in the business of providing these types of modifications, are you aware of what you can and can't do?

RO: Yes, it's crystal clear. The tunes that you would be allowed to make are built into the software that's made by and manufactured. There's an after-market equivalent of that software that has different kinds of functionality. That software doesn't necessarily meet the same sets and standards.

TH: For a company like this, you'd have to go out of your way to delete all environmental controls?

RO: There is no way to do that by mistake. There's no way that you're just like accidentally turning things off. There are sound requirements. There are exhaust requirements. Those things are regulated by law.

TH: This case was described by the US Attorney Mark Totten as "one of the largest Clean Air Act cases" that he's ever seen. Does this type of thing surprise you?

RO: It's definitely a thing that's happening all over the country all the time. And whether or not you have enough evidence to prove it and prosecute it, it is the thing that surprised me.

For what it's worth, the industry is moving very heavily into everything needing to be regulated. So states like California and New York have mandated programs for all passenger vehicles included, where you have to go get tested and have your emissions checked.

They call it getting a smog check. There isn't one here yet in Michigan. There hasn't been an incentive. There aren't giant black clouds of smoke in the cities, so people don't notice the regulations where these things are definitely coming.

And it's part of the industry shift towards clean fuels, clean energy, and eventually the electricification of vehicles.

Since vehicles in the future are getting geared up to have over-the-air updates and whatnot, it's going to get harder and harder to do this kind of tuning on vehicles and manufacturer the vehicle is going to make it very hard to do anything illegal.

Electric Vehicle Charging
CC BY-ND 2.0
Electric Vehicle Charging

TH: That's making me think of right-to-repair being an issue.

RO: Yeah, right-to-repair is essentially a lie because the law hasn't done a very good job of specifying the distinction between the right to repair versus the ability, and the manufacturers of vehicles have made ability completely out of reach.

TH: I wonder if cases like this don't help with ability to repair.

RO: The emission side of things is causing more and more of a strangulation on the right-to-repair side of things because every time you have some guy do his aftermarket tunes out of his shop in his buddy's garage, suddenly there's just another reason why, 'well, we can't let you regulate this stuff on your own. We can't let you repair this stuff on your own, because look what happens when we do.'"

You can see the slippery slope argument there that I'm obviously falling into, but you also can see the other side.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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