The owner of a Rhode Island-based trucking company pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday to conspiring to illegally alter or bypass truck emission controls.

The conspiracy, which took place from roughly September 2014 through August 2019, involved Michael Collins, his North Kingstown company, M&D Transportation Inc., and his now-defunct computer company, Diesel Tune-Ups of RI Inc.

Also involved in the scheme were various trucking and diesel vehicle sales and repair companies throughout the U.S. and a foreign national.

“All conspired to alter or disable certain functions of the Electronic Control Modules (ECM) and On Board Diagnostic (OBD) monitoring systems of heavy-duty diesel vehicles such as semi-trucks or ‘big rigs,’” according to the Rhode Island district attorney’s office.

The Environmental Protection Agency established standards under the federal Clean Air Act that limit air pollution emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, from various types of vehicle engines. To meet those standards, vehicle manufacturers install hardware components as part of the systems that manage and treat engine exhaust to reduce the pollution.

In this case, the foreign national, in exchange for a fee, would download what’s known as “tuning” software through a laptop computer provided by Collins and his companies, which was then connected to the vehicle.

Through a remote connection, the “tunes” were downloaded onto each vehicle’s ECM or computer to reprogram the vehicle’s monitoring systems. The tunes prevented the vehicle’s monitoring systems from detecting malfunctions in the emission control components, which allowed vehicles to operate without proper emission controls.

The installation of the tunes was often performed while diesel sales and service centers were making other changes to trucks’ pollution control systems, according to the attorney’s office. Collins used the same techniques to circumvent emission controls on some of his company’s trucks.

“As a result, ‘tuned’ vehicles could run with increased horsepower and torque, which can reduce maintenance and repair costs, but which results in significant increases in pollutant emissions,” the office stated.

According to court documents, customers paid Collins’ companies between $1,700 and $3,650 for each vehicle tuned, and he and his companies wired a portion of the funds to the foreign co-conspirator.

From at least March 2017 through at least June 1, 2018, Collins either deposited or caused to be deposited into his account fees received from approximately 25 diesel trucking or repair shops throughout the U.S., the district attorney’s office stated.

“Tampering with diesel vehicles by installing defeat devices increases emissions of smog and soot, both of which contribute to serious health problems that often disproportionately affect families, especially children, living in underserved communities,” said Tyler Amon, special agent in charge for EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division for New England. “Placing profit over public health in Rhode Island has clear accountability.”

Collins, M&D Transportation and Diesel Tune Ups of RI are scheduled to be sentenced on July 10. The attorney’s office did not provide guilty plea or sentencing details for conspiring service shops.  

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Trucking industry worried after EPA issues final rule on NOx emissions

Biden climate blueprint promotes modal shift away from trucks

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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