Dieselgate has Mercedes-Benz in hot water in Europe but not in the US

US investigators have not left their mark.
US investigators have not left their mark.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Probst
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In Europe, Mercedes is in trouble. This year, Switzerland banned registrations of its diesel vehicles and Germany found emissions-control “defeat devices” in 1 million cars manufactured by the company, sparking a mass recall.

In the US, the Mercedes dieselgate scandal has fallen under the radar. A class-action lawsuit filed in New Jersey in 2016 on behalf of US-based Mercedes owners cites tests of several Mercedes diesel models and alleges that one car emitted 83 times more pollution than US regulations allow. Another is said to have emitted 91 times the legal standard. The suit alleges the emissions are due to defeat devices. (Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, has submitted a motion to dismiss the case.) There have been reports of an official US Mercedes dieselgate investigation, but no official confirmation.

According to a letter from Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts to the US Department of Justice in February, the DOJ began looking into “possible emissions irregularities” in Mercedes vehicles in early 2016, though the DOJ itself won’t confirm that. “The US Department of Justice generally does not confirm, deny or otherwise comment on the existence or non-existence of an investigation,” department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman wrote to Quartz Oct 1.

The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag wrote in February that it had obtained internal DOJ documents showing investigators had discovered software functions installed in Mercedes diesel cars that helped them pass US emissions tests (paywall). The functions allegedly allow Mercedes cars to emit more emissions than permitted by US clean air standards but appear to meet those standards during tests.

Bild am Sonntag reported that confidential sources provided documents showing that an engine-modulating software function called “Slipguard” installed in Mercedes diesel vehicles was able to recognize whether the car was being tested in a laboratory. Another software function, called “Bit 15,” turned the cars’ emissions-cleaning mode off after about 16 miles of driving.

A Daimler spokesperson responded to the reports at the time by saying that US government authorities “know the documents and no complaint has been filed.”  Daimler continues to deny the accusations. “We believe that these claims are without merit, and we intend to continue vigorously defending against them,“ a spokesperson wrote to Quartz in September.

Meanwhile, in 2017, Daimler gave up its bid to sell its 2017 diesel models in the US after stalled talks with regulators. And in mid-2018, in its second-quarter report to investors, Daimler noted that “it cannot be ruled out that authorities will reach the conclusion that other passenger cars and/or commercial vehicles with the brand name Mercedes-Benz or other brand names of the Group also have impermissible functionalities and/or calibrations.”

The judge in New Jersey has yet to decide if the class-action suit will go forward. If the case proceeds and Daimler is found guilty, it could expose the company to criminal charges similar to those Volkswagen faced after admitting in 2015 to installing illicit software in nearly 600,000 diesel cars in the US. Volkswagen agreed to pay $4.3 billion in 2017 to settle criminal misconduct charges.

Those awaiting the court’s findings may want to consider the comments of one expert in 2017: When one company starts to cheat on emissions tests, it makes competitive sense for others to follow suit.

“Good emissions numbers translate to sales these days,” Paul Biedrzycki, a coder and co-founder of Cars and Code—a Brooklyn-based developer workgroup that focuses on automotive technology—told Quartz when news of a Fiat-Chrysler dieselgate broke. Consumers want them, and governments demand them. If one manufacturer does it, Biedrzycki said, “they all have to at least seriously consider it.”