Rich Benoit, a YouTuber and a rogue Tesla mechanic, set out to convert a Tesla with a destroyed power train into a diesel vehicle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told him to stop.
Benoit got the letter from the EPA after posting several videos about conversions using a diesel engine. In one, he’s driving an old bread truck around town while it spews black smoke out of its exhaust. In another, he’s pulling the engine out of that antique truck and putting it into a Tesla with a totaled engine. The EPA’s warning wasn’t specific, but Benoit was pretty sure one of these two videos got him in trouble.
According to Benoit’s video about the letter, the problem is that the specific engine he’s using is an antique. “This is a pre-emissions diesel,” Benoit said in the video. “There’s no emissions devices on board in the truck.”
Diesel engines can spew a lot of toxic emissions into the air and were a huge contributing factor of pollution in the United States before the EPA started regulating it. The standards are complicated and vary state to state, but basically cars manufactured after a certain period require devices in the car that phase out harmful particulate matter found in diesel emissions.
Older vehicles are typically grandfathered in. The engine Benoit used in the Tesla is from an old pre-emissions diesel truck. But it’s not eligible to be grandfathered in because the EPA said the VIN number of the Tesla determines what standards it follows, not the engine that’s been placed in it aftermarket. So, because the Tesla is newer, it has to follow all the emissions standards of the time it was manufactured even if it's retrofitted with an engine that’s still technically legal. It’s just that the engine is only legal if it’s still in the truck it came from.
Benoit told Motherboard that the EPA’s warning letter was pretty tame. “There was no fine involved,” he said. “It was just a warning stating that the actions taken could result in the revocation of the registration of the vehicle.” It also wasn’t specific. It didn’t tell him what vehicle was violating. That it was the converted Tesla was just his best guess.
He’s also not sure how the EPA found out. Someone in his audience could have alerted them, but he said that he isn’t the first YouTuber to be served a notice from the EPA over diesel engines. There’s a gray market online for what’s called “emision deletion.” The pitch is that removing the stuff that regulates emissions from a diesel engine makes the engine perform better. There’s a lot of YouTube channels that chronicle deleting emissions and tuning cars and many of them have videos about getting into trouble with the EPA.
Earlier this month, The Drive reported that New Jersey man Mike Sebold got into trouble with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for trying to sell a truck with deleted emissions through Facebook Marketplace. The DEP told him to bring the truck up to code or or scrap the truck. The cost of the alterations, according to Sebold, was $10,000. He scrapped the truck.
Benoit said he’s seen a crackdown on diesel in the past few years and he thinks YouTubers have been a specific target. “They know I’m going to make a video on it. They know I’m going to put it out there and that’s helping them spread their message,” he said.
He thinks it’s all part of a big push by the government to get people into electric vehicles and lower carbon emissions, but he’s not sure how well it will work out. President Joe Biden has been striving to end the sale of gas powered vehicles by 2035. He just bought a Rivian electric truck and when we spoke he was in the middle of a road trip that would take him from New Jersey to Florida using only the electric vehicle. It’s been difficult.
“I love the truck,” he said. “But the places I’ve visited, the North Carolinas and some parts of Virginia, there’s literally zero infrastructure and there is zero interested in an EV…it’s going to take a little bit longer than 2035 to figure this out.”
Benoit said he wasn’t going to stop working on the diesel Tesla. “We’re still gonna build the thing,” he said. His current plan is to modify the vehicle to run on vegetable oil instead of diesel and he hopes that will pacify the EPA.
The EPA did not return Motherboard’s request for comment.