Carmakers’ abominable April crushes consumers’ trust in them

May 4, 2016

The appalling scale of carmakers’ gaming and cheating of emissions tests became more apparent in April as their credibility collapsed like a house of cards. The steady drip-drip with which the public became increasingly aware of the magnitude and pervasiveness of carmakers’ wrongdoing started on 20 April when Mitsubishi’s top executives admitted it had cheated CO2 tests on 625,000 minicars in Japan. Mitsubishi’s president acknowledged the misconduct with a deep bow of apology and later admitted the carmaker had cheated fuel tests for 25 years.

The next morning, PSA Peugeot Citroën offices were raided by anti-fraud investigators as part of ongoing Dieselgate investigations by the French government. The very same afternoon news broke on the other side of the pond that VW was offering to buy back 480,000 US cars affected by ‘defeat devices’. Rumours also spread of action by investors in the US against Daimler for failure to disclose market sensitive information regarding dodgy emissions test. Daimler the owner of Mercedes Benz also admitted it had opened an internal investigation of its testing process for diesel exhaust emissions at the request of the US justice department.

In contrast to tough regulation on the other side of the Atlantic, EU member states acted like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand. As part of the UK’s Dieselgate investigation, the transport ministry published a study confirming that none of the 37 models tested against the two most recent nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions standards (Euro 5 and 6) met Europe’s lab limit in real-world testing. The average emissions measured were more than five times as high as the legal limit in the laboratory. Despite this, only VW was found cheating; others apparently ‘cheated legally’, manipulating the existing weak rules. Talking to the Guardian, Robert Goodwill, the junior transport minister, said: ‘Unlike the Volkswagen situation, there have been no laws broken. This has been done within the rules.’ T&E said the UK report is weak on detail and wrong in several areas that it will be following up on.

The KBA, Germany’s transport agency, waited until 3pm on Friday, 22 April, to issue the results of its own investigation and announce a recall of 630,000 cars across Europe after finding emissions irregularities on cars made by Mercedes, Opel, Volkswagen and Audi. The German report found the majority of 56 tested car models would ‘legally’ switch off emission controls when on the road, thus pumping out way more toxic diesel fumes than allowed. The legality of such claims will be tested shortly by T&E German member DUH.

One week later, the French government inquiry published test results of 52 vehicles. The findings mimicked those of Germany and the UK: while the tests didn’t find any illegal defeat devices, they did confirm cars emitted much higher levels of NOx emissions on the road than permitted by the law. The carmakers involved were: Renault,  Fiat Chrysler, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Opel, Ford, Peugeot-Citroën and Nissan.

Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles manager at Transport & Environment, said: ‘The current investigations in the UK, Germany and France prove once again the impunity of the car industry and the inability of national authorities in Europe to bring it to account. Governments are letting industry off the hook. Just as carmakers cannot switch off braking systems to preserve the life of braking pads, they shouldn’t switch off after-treatment systems that control pollution in most road conditions in Europe. This is not a victimless crime. 72,000 people die prematurely every year in Europe, choked with diesel fumes.’

The Financial Times inside business reporter, Jonathan Ford wrote: ‘As the environmental rules were “toughened” then, carmakers simply became more energetic about gaming the tests.’

But European authorities are reluctant to go after the carmakers, taking their explanations of higher emissions on the road at face value. While more cheating is emerging in the rest of the world, the European regulators have only confirmed what we already know – VW has broken the law. The investigations to date have only proven that the exact same defeat device used by the VW group is not used by other carmakers, but they have failed to dig deeper into the current manipulations and identify if other illegal softwares adjusting emission control strategies have been deployed in Europe.

The events also underscored the worthlessness of the official new car CO2 figures, which were released earlier last month by the European Environment Agency. In 2015 new passenger cars emitted on average 119.6 grammes of carbon dioxide per km, according to the EEA report, 3% lower than in the previous year. The reality ​on our roads, T&E said, ​is that the efficiency of new cars has been largely unchanged for four years.

Speaking at the end of a turbulent month, Julia Poliscanova added: ‘This is the Libor moment for the car industry. We hope Europe’s lawmakers take this unique opportunity to eradicate cheating for good.’

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