Harley-Davidson has an expensive emissions problem of its own

Harleygate sounds terrible, so I'm not going to call it that.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
3 min read
Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Loud pipes may save lives, but the motorcycles that run them might be causing damage in other ways, and I'm not talking about eardrums. Harley-Davidson is currently facing a $12 million fine after selling aftermarket tuning devices that turn its motorcycles into tiny little Volkswagen diesels (as far as the environment is concerned).

H-D ended up in this mess because it was selling "super tuners," which allow owners to tweak various engine parameters, just like ECU tunes for cars. Trouble is, these super tuners can allow motorcycles to surpass EPA pollution limits, and when you run afoul of the federal government, especially in this post-Dieselgate industry, it's basically asking for trouble.

The EPA claims that selling these devices is tantamount to creating and selling defeat devices, which violate the Clean Air Act. The feds have asked for Harley-Davidson to stop selling super tuners and to buy back super tuners in the field and summarily destroy them, along with any remaining dealer stock. Furthermore, it must deny any warranty claims for owners that keep and use their super tuners.

Harley's website claims the super tuners for "competition use only," but the EPA, possessing at least three-fourths of a full human brain, told Reuters that most of those super tuners were obviously being used on the street. Harley-Davidson didn't go so far as to admit fault, but it told Reuters the $12 million fine is "a good faith compromise with the EPA on areas of law we interpret difficulty."

If you're not familiar with the vehicular aftermarket, allow me to translate that last bit for you: "We put a disclaimer on our site, which is where both our concern and our perceived legal liability ends. It also happens to be where the money begins, so, hooray."

Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

The decision to crack down on Harley-Davidson for its super-tuner sales could have a ripple effect throughout both the motorcycle and car aftermarkets. Having spent time in the aftermarket, I can say with some certainty that a majority of "off-road-use only" items -- exhausts without catalytic converters, ECU tunes or other powertrain modifications -- are, in fact, used primarily on the street.

The end user doesn't care, often because there are also ways to cheat emissions tests, whether it's replacing stock equipment for the test or building oxygen-sensor spacers that simulate clean air even without catalytic converters. The garage doesn't care, because why should it be their responsibility to monitor individual activity? And, of course, the company selling the products doesn't care, because it's making money hand over fist and they put a tiny disclaimer on the website.

Were the government to start cracking down on selling and installing devices meant for "off-road use," fewer people would be inclined to run them on the street, fewer garages would be willing to install them (without protections to their own liabilities), and fewer companies would take the risk of selling them in the first place.

However, that's unlikely to happen with any sort of seriousness. Every state (hell, every county) has its own emissions and inspection routine, so navigating that is a nightmare for all parties involved. The EPA certainly doesn't have the money to oversee every garage willing to install an aftermarket part, either.

So, if anything, we'll continue to see takedowns of the big boys, like Harley-Davidson, which would ideally send a message to everyone down the chain to knock it off, sort of like busting the drug kingpin but not the junkie on the corner.

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