Dieselgate continues: the startling contrast between two sides of the Atlantic

Against the backdrop of the eye-watering $15 billion settlement for Volkswagen in the US, the silence from the company in the face of calls for compensation in the EU is deafening. Here VW claims it hasn’t broken any EU laws and most governments are dancing to its tune. An excellent report published by the UK Parliament's transport select committee into Dieselgate nails the hypocrisy of VW’s claim of innocence by asking: why did VW apologise for its misconduct if it now denies any wrongdoing?

In its hearing with the EMIS MEPs in July, VW’s arrogance was hard to ignore. In his opening remarks the head of VW group development Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn shamelessly asked for better (read: less) regulation in Europe, hardly a sign of contrition. Furthermore, despite fitting the same test cheating software on both sides of the Atlantic, VW now claims it didn’t break any EU laws because, unlike in the US, the regulation doesn’t require it to disclose whether its software was legal or not! So in Europe customers of affected vehicles get a quick software update and, if they’re lucky, a bit of plastic piping. This is what VW claims to be “better customer service” than in the US where it buys back the car.

But VW is far from being the only car manufacturer abusing EU regulations and pumping out much more toxic gases than EU standards allow. Renault, Fiat, Opel and many others have been exposed as producing emissions up to 10 times the legal limit, and more in some cases, outside of the narrow test conditions. The French Royal Commission, the latest national investigation to produce a report, released its results late on a Friday afternoon, just as millions in France hit the road for their holidays. The findings demonstrate highly suspicious emissions behaviour for most tested cars, with Renault models standing out in terms of both the high numbers affected and the staggering emissions. Inexplicably, software experts on the committee were not asked to check the emissions software and no remedy action is proposed to clean up the cars. The report’s findings on Renault say it can’t prove the presence of illegal defeat devices but can’t rule them out either, begging the question of what was the point of this enquiry in the first place? Renault was also questioned by EMIS during the summer. The head of the group’s engineering, Gaspar Gascon Abellan, said defining normal use of a vehicle was “too risky” and he enlightened the committee on the complex parameters of car use that affect emission control such as “if a car is driven or if it stops”. You couldn’t make this up.

Arrogance and evasiveness were the leitmotif of both carmakers’ hearings. But this is unsurprising given the complacency of the national regulators that refuse to take any action against manufacturers’ abuse of the rules. Around one in five cars on Europe’s roads are employing emissions management strategies that are possibly illegal, and which switch down the exhaust aftertreatment system in cold or hot weather, at high speeds, on steep slopes and when the car is loaded. The complacency of carmakers suggests they are confident regulators will continue to collude in the cover-up. This confidence may be premature given the increasing number of legal cases being brought against manufacturers – including by Bavarian shareholders who feel they should have been alerted earlier to the risks by VW. A mass lawsuit by VW users, similar to a class action in the US, is also in the making. Renault and others, take note.

The true scandal is that the 70,000 Europeans die prematurely each year from high levels of nitrogen dioxide in our cities that carmakers should have prevented in order to comply with Euro 5 and 6 rules. Instead most carmakers chose to fit a cheap after-treatment system (exhaust gas recirculation, or EGR) to their diesel cars that was so unreliable they switched it off as much as possible to prevent breakdowns. Regulators in member states knew this but did nothing; and shockingly continue to do nothing – even allowing new cars onto the roads today with the same problems. These dodgy diesel cars should be recalled and repaired to bring the toxic emissions into line with the rules.

The EMIS committee should expose this continuing scandal and demand both industry and national regulators to fix the approximately 50 million diesel cars on Europe’s roads which are shortening the lives and ruining the health of EU citizens. If they do so, the enquiry committee and Parliament will have delivered a real service to citizens, and perhaps even the mighty carmakers will be more prudent about trying to circumvent EU regulations in the future.

Comments

Kumar Rohit's picture

Comment: 

Will this force the regulators to come-up with advanced regulations which regulate the use of after-treatment devices and control creation of Nox and other harmful chemicals at the engine level?

Julia_Poliscanova's picture

Comment: 

The EMIS committee on its own cannot force that, but their views and public standing is really important to push the regulators who are in charge to do so. The Commission and the national ministries are currently discussing updating the new on-road tests for NOx emissions and reforming the overall EU testing system - the more robust and strict these are agreed, the more guarantee we have that the use of after-treatment to reduce NOx and other pollutants will be fitted and controlled properly in the future in Europe.

Anonymous's picture

Comment: 

The US are trying to extract money and damage a foreign competitor to the government-backed US car manufacturers. The way they handled the issue is completely differently from how they handled the many cases when US car and truck makers cheated their way around regulations and it is not at all targeted at reducing overall emissions. Every step the US have taken so far has been to maximise damage to VW, even at the cost of getting the problem solved quickly.

They knew they could hit a German company where it hurts by damaging its reputation on environmental issues, so they purpusefully exaggerated claims (e.g. only mentioning the most extreme values measured for a very short timespan during a regeneration cycle, rather than the average), implied that the emissions are much higher than for comparable cars (they are not) and completely ignored the fact that the cars in question have much lower emissions than US standards allow for all other pollutants.

That does not excuse car makers from cheating their way around regulations or other countries from looking the other way when they find evidence of such behaviour, but the fact is that the US should treat every company similarly in similar situations and they should have reacted in a proportionate and reasonable manner. That way, the problem could have been tackled sooner, the reputation damage to the company that produces the diesel cars with the lowest NOx emissions in practice would have been limited and VW diesel car owners in the US would not have to deal with anything other than a recall.

It is good that all of this has drawn attention to the problem of emissions in practice, but the results are completely counterproductive. The blame in the media and in politics has focused:
- on a single company (ironically, the one that makes the cars that yield the lowest emissions in practice)
- on one type of emissions (NOx), but not on the more dangerous particulates or on volatile organic compounds
- on a technology (diesel) that may be more difficult to optimise for low NOx emissions, but can be cleaner than the most common alternative in other emissions and contributes much less to globar warning.

None of this will lead to lower levels of environmentally damaging emissions from motor vehicles overall. It will mostly serve US economic interests.

Introducing the RDE test is a very good step towards actually improving air quality.
Furthermore, I would argue that it would be better if emission limits would be the same for every engine type, but do allow for tradeoffs (e.g., a little more NOx is allowed if it leads to lower PM, or the other way around), with correspondence factors backed by studies that analyse environmental and health effects of various pollutants. Finally, I would propose that increasing overall emissions in any way to protect engine components, should only be allowed if there is no technical feasible way of protecting it without these measures.

Julia_Poliscanova's picture

Comment: 

First, I'd like to point out that as T&E we have never focused on one company or even diesel - we always claimed that the VW scandal is just the tip of an iceberg and that this is a pan-industrial problem affecting all emissions, safety, petrol, diesel, etc.

In our latest report we have analysed hundreds of test results, which actually show that the VW Group is one of the cleanest: https://www.transportenvironment.org/press/dieselgate-1st-anniversary-al...

But I do have to disagree with you that the EPA is solely targeting a German company - they have good history enforcing their regulations and penalising manufacturers from Asia, US as well as Europe and in various fields. There is a whole database of the EPA infractions over the years which shows they are not trying to single out VW:
https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/clean-air-act-vehicle-and-engine-enforce...

Anonymous's picture

Comment: 

T&E has indeed been very neutral on this issue and has rightfully focused on the problem in general, rather than specific brands or technologies. I did not mean to suggest otherwise; my comments were about the reaction of government agencies and the press.

The US EPA has indeed targeted many companies from around the globe in the past. The point I was trying to make is that the fines sought and the way the EPA, CARB and the US Department of Justice have communicated with the press and stalled VW's efforts to make amends is very different from all of those previous cases. There may have been an element of internal politics related to criticism on the EPA leadership at the time and the need to show success in a high-profile case, but it is very difficult not to see an element of protectionist opportunism in here. The US legal and regulatory climate is unfortunately very conducive to such abuse.

The way 'dieselgate' is handled in the US is neither proportionate to the extent of the violation nor consistent with how similar (and often worse) violations were handled in the past. This may fit the US poltical agenda, but it is ultimately not beneficial to the environment.

Terawatt's picture

Comment: 

You are right to say the EPA has done and is doing a much better job of actually enforcing regulation and thereby making it effective. I think it is worth adding to this only that the regulations themselves are deeply influenced by industry interest - on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a reason why the EU fleet is dramatically more efficient than the US one. Detroit is not competitive in small, efficient engines - gasoline or diesel. And the extremely strict NOx regulations in the US very likely have something to do with the fact that European and Asian manufacturers have much better diesel technology than the Americans.

The cronyism problem is everywhere to be found. Still, there is no doubt that Europe would be much improved if these imoortant regulations were properly enforced.

Sadly the state of affairs is at least as rotten in many other important areas, and on both sides of the pond. Reading Ben Goldacre on how medicines obtain approval makes one want to get some anti-depressants, if not for the fact that one can't know if they work or have dangerous side effects.

All the more important that we have activists like you (and Mr. Goldacre) to expose the rot and allow us to start working on cleaning up the mess. Keep up the excellent work!

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About the author

Julia Poliscanova's picture

Manager, Clean Vehicles and Air Quality

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