Daimler’s dirty diesel defeat device deal: $1.5 billion to say sorry

Enlarge / A 1980s Mercedes-Benz diesel belches exhaust fumes in London. People expected diesel engines of this vintage to be dirty, but we had a right to expect that diesel engines sold over the past decade complied with emissions laws. Turns out, they don’t.

Richard Oliver/Getty Images

In 2020 it seems more usual to read about the US Environmental Protection Agency rolling back pollution laws or arguing that big business should be allowed to do what it wants. But apparently the agency does occasionally work as intended. Earlier this week, together with the US Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board, it held Daimler AG—parent company to Mercedes-Benz—accountable for selling diesel vehicles fitted with emissions defeat devices.

EPA and CARB found that all was not right with the Daimler’s diesel engines in the wake of the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal. EPA told Daimler it was going to conduct some additional tests of the company’s four- and six-cylinder diesel engines “using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device.”

In doing so, it discovered several auxiliary emission control devices that were not described in the homologation paperwork submitted by Daimler. In total, about 160,000 Sprinter vans and about 90,000 Mercedes-Benz vehicles are affected, between model years 2009 and 2016.

Show me you’re sorry

As a consequence, Daimler will pay $875 million in civil penalties, and $70.3 million in other penalties. It will also have to pay for a recall to fix those 250,000 Diesel engines. All of them will require a new Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) filter and a software update, but many will also require additional parts, including new copper catalysts, diesel particulate filters, sensors, and even new instrument panels.

That’s going to cost the company an additional $436 million, and it can’t hang around, either. The settlement requires that 85 percent of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars have to be recalled and fixed within two years, and 85 percent of the Sprinter vans must be repaired within three, with “stiff penalties” for failing.

While the company checkbook is out, Daimler will also pay California $110 million to fund pollution-mitigation projects within the state, and it has been ordered to buy 15 new locomotive engines to replace some older, dirtier ones. On top of those financial penalties, Daimler employees are in for a whole lot more compliance training in their future as part of corporate reforms intended to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.