Volkswagen has been left with its reputation in tatters, as well as facing huge fines and a recall of 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide, after it was caught cheating emissions tests by US regulators. The company’s CEO resigned days after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the admission of software in its vehicles designed to cheat the tests.
The car industry lobby is second only in size to the financial industry in lobbying the EU institutions, according to the transparency register. The sector’s influence on EU legislation for car emissions limits and testing has come into sharp focus since Volkswagen’s cheating was uncovered in the US yet went undetected in tests in Europe where diesel cars account for more than one in two cars sold.
The new Volkswagen boss, Matthias Müller, who was appointed following his predecessor’s resignation over the emissions scandal, was head of Porsche when the high-performance sports car company appeared to be caught drafting EU legislation to weaken noise pollution laws.
Loans to Volkswagen from the European Investment Bank (EIB) may be recalled if it becomes clear the money was misused, the bank’s president has said. ‘We will have to ask ourselves the question whether we should reclaim loans,’ Werner Hoyer told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The Dieselgate scandal has prompted European car manufacturers to rethink their commitment to diesel and this week Volkswagen announced plans to intensify development of electric cars and plug-in hybrids. It may also have smaller vehicles use petrol instead of diesel. Yet European carmakers’ industry body ACEA has warned against jeopardising diesel, ‘one of the key pillars for fulfilling future CO2 targets’.
Just days before the Volkswagen scandal became public, environmental campaigners in Germany confronted Angela Merkel with the message ‘Diesel exhausts kill’ as the German chancellor opened the Frankfurt International Motor Show, the largest car show in Europe. The message was presented via a 13-metre-long blow-up car with its own cloud of exhaust fumes, designed to highlight the finding that most new diesel cars fail air quality standards they should have met by 1 September.
The impact of the Volkswagen emissions rigging scandal has centred on the shock that a leading and profitable car company from a country with a strong environmental record had been using specialist software to manipulate test results. But T&E has been warning about discrepancies between published fuel-consumption data (which come from official test results) and ‘real-world’ driving conditions for 17 years.
A number of European governments have ordered their own national investigations following news that Volkswagen had rigged emissions tests by using ‘defeat devices’. The European Commission issued a statement encouraging such inquiries.
The Volkswagen test-rigging scandal has been roundly cited as an embarrassment for regulators in Europe because it took an American regulator to highlight blatant malpractice by a European company. The discomfort is heightened by the fact that diesel cars make up a tiny percentage of the market in the US – about 3% – but they account for about 50% of sales in Europe. EU regulators were also informed at the same time as those in the US by the International Council on Clean Transportation but took no action.
The use of cheap, ineffective or poorly configured exhaust treatment systems is one of main reasons why the majority of new diesel cars fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road. That’s according to the latest research by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which last year found that 13 out of 15 modern diesel cars did not achieve the Euro 6 limit in real-world testing.