Cummins Inc. waited until just before the Christmas holiday to announce that it had “reached an agreement in principle to resolve U.S. regulatory claims regarding its emissions certification and compliance process for certain engines primarily used in pick-up truck applications.” After insisting it cooperated fully with regulators, the company went on to claim it “has seen no evidence that anyone acted in bad faith and does not admit wrongdoing.”
That vague and tortuous statement was clarified when the U.S. Justice Department put out its own release saying that Cummins was close to signing an agreement with DOJ and the State of California under which it would pay $1.7 billion to settle allegations it violated the Clean Air Act by installing defeat devices on hundreds of thousands of engines.
Cummins, which produces engines for trucks and heavy equipment, has thus joined the roster of large companies accused of installing technology meant to yield deceptive results on emissions tests and thus conceal the true amount of pollution being generated. DOJ stated that the devices installed by Cummins allowed the engines to produce thousands of tons of excess emissions of nitrogen oxides, which are linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma.
The defeat device revelations began, of course, with Volkswagen. The German automaker has paid out over $20 billion in fines and settlements around the world since the accusations of emissions cheating first emerged in 2015.
Yet there are a number of other large companies that have faced similar allegations. In 2019 Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) reached an agreement with federal and California regulators under which it paid over $300 million in fines and spent about $200 million to recall vehicles and make them compliant.
In 2020 Daimler AG (now the Mercedes-Benz Group) reached a similar settlement under which it agreed to pay $945 million in penalties and spend $534 million on vehicle modifications.
Automotive suppliers have also gotten caught up in the controversy. Robert Bosch has paid several hundred million dollars in settlements for its role in producing the defeat devices for Volkswagen. In 2018 IAV GmbH, a German company that designs automotive systems, pled guilty to one criminal felony count and paid a $35 million criminal fine as a result of its work for VW.
After-market companies have also been targeted. The EPA has fined dozens of small firms around the country for illegally installing defeat devices, while the DOJ has gone after some medium-sized suppliers. For example, in 2022, Allied Exhaust Systems, which sells to individuals nationwide, agreed to pay a $1.1 million penalty.
Such cases suggest a remarkable willingness of companies large and small to violate environmental regulations. These are not situations in which firms accidentally exceeded emissions limits. From Volkswagen and Cummins down to the small automotive shops, the defendants were accused of deliberately thwarting emission controls.
The use of defeat devices does not simply involve infringement of abstract standards. They cause vast amounts of extra pollution to be spewed into the air and thus represent a corporate crime against the public’s health.