VW’s cheating is just the tip of the iceberg

Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at T&E

The prospect of Volkswagen being fined $18 billion for manipulating air pollution tests in the US caused its shares to fall 22% and is sending shock waves through the automotive industry. VW has been ordered to recall nearly 500,000 cars, meaning a massive bill to correct the vehicles and potential class action claims for compensation. After initially refusing to comment, CEO Winterkorn issued a statement saying he was “very sorry”. The evidence suggests he will not be the last head of a carmaker offering apologies in the next few months as other manufacturers will be found making use of “defeat devices” for tricking laboratory tests.

Diesel cars are niche in the US, and in most of the rest of the world, representing just one in 7 cars sold worldwide. The VW recall is not large by global standards. But in Europe over half of new cars are diesels – 7.5 million of the 10 million sold globally last year were bought in Europe. There is strong evidence that similar illegal devices are also used in Europe by both VW and other manufacturers. Since 2009 (when VW began using defeat devices) over 40 million diesel cars have been sold in Europe, a sixth of all cars on the road today.

Over the past three years, Transport & Environment (T&E), with the support of the International Council on Clean Transportation (that alerted US authorities to its concerns over VW), has exposed countless ways carmakers manipulate emissions tests for both air pollution and CO2 emissions (fuel economy). For example, carmakers charge the car’s battery before a test, deduct 4% from each test result, and use incorrect laboratory settings for the inertia of the vehicle. The companies admit these tricks but claim they are “legitimate flexibilities” in the obsolete test used in Europe. Governments and the European Commission have been unwilling to challenge the industry and close the loopholes, instead focusing on introducing new testing systems that are scheduled to begin in three years’ time for all new vehicles.

Through trickery, the gap between official fuel economy figures and those achieved by an average driver have grown to 40%. For new diesel cars nitrogen oxide emissions are typically five times higher on the road than the allowed limit and just one in 10 cars meets the required level on the road. But for some models the gap is so large T&E suspects that the car is able to detect when it is tested using a “defeat device” and artificially lowers emissions during the test. For example [*]: a diesel Audi A8 tested in Europe produced nitrogen oxide emissions 21.9 times over the legal limit on the road; a BMW X3 diesel was 9.9 times over the limit on the road; an Opal Zafira Tourer, 9.5 times; Citroen C4 Picasso 5.1 times. All these vehicles passed the laboratory test.

In CO2 tests, on average almost every Mercedes model achieves levels on the road over 50% higher than the laboratory tests; the BMW 5 series and Peugeot 308 achieve just shy of 50% higher than in the lab. For virtually every new model that comes onto the market the gap between test and real-world performance leaps. With the launch of the VW Golf Mark VII the gap between test and real-world CO2 emissions jumped from 22% to 41%. The gap for the new Mercedes C Class rose from 37% to 53%; for the Renault Clio IV the gap almost doubled from 19% to 34%. These changes are unlikely to be caused solely by the increased use of test flexibilities – the more sinister and illegal defeat devices may also be in use and T&E has initiated a testing programme to demonstrate this as the US authorities have done to expose VW.

But given the powerful anecdotal evidence, why haven’t European authorities undertaken similar tests to their US equivalents? Regrettably, the European system of testing is much less independent and robust than that in the US where 10-15% of new models are retested by the US authorities in their own laboratories. In Europe carmakers pay certified testing organisations to perform tests in the carmakers’ own laboratories. The tests are overseen by National Type Approval Authorities (in the UK the Vehicle Certification Agency). But carmakers ‘shop’ for the best deal from agencies across Europe and directly pay for their services. The job of the engineer overseeing the test is ultimately dependent on the next contract from the carmaker.

The VW scandal in the US, and what will follow in Europe as more evidence emerges, demonstrates the entire system of testing vehicles is not fit for purpose. What is needed is a truly independent EU Type Approval Authority funded by a levy of €20 on every vehicle sold. This would be remarkably cost effective – last year over 500,000 people died prematurely from air pollution in Europe, many the result of high diesel nitrogen oxide emissions. The cost was almost €1 trillion. The scandal of VW using defeat devices in the US is just the tip of the iceberg and the European Commission needs to get a grip on the problem. 

[*] Source: A compilation of data from respected testing authorities around Europe by Transport & Environment (T&E).

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