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  • #Autogate: More tears to come

    This is my modest attempt to add something to the almighty #autogate scandal that detonated like a bomb on 18 September, four intense weeks ago. Here we go. First, about the industry. All the evidence we have assembled has led us to say this affair is the tip of the iceberg. Predictably the industry is trying to paint it as the opposite - an isolated incident for which a few low-level rogue engineers were responsible.

    Needless to say, I think our reading will prove closer to the truth. The industry body ACEA has even written to ministers to say they ‘understand that the US want to challenge the leadership role that European manufacturers have taken globally with this [diesel] technology’. Sadly, this line has a certain following – especially in Germany, I must add. But to many others, leading by cheating seems quite a daring line to take. To me this cocktail of denial, religious-like belief in one technology, silencing of whistleblowers and counting on unconditional political support was instrumental in creating this mess; if it does not change, I envisage this crisis will last much longer than is necessary.

    Second, about diesel technology. In Europe, one in every two cars sold has been a diesel; outside of Europe, one in every 20. And that was before all this. We have to accept that diesel is dead as a serious export product. And stop pretending that reaching CO2 targets depends on diesel. Let’s not forget a diesel car costs €2,000 more than a petrol one. And what do you get for all that? 10-15% less CO2 and worse air quality, while for the same €2,000 you can make a petrol car at least 30% more fuel efficient without air quality trade-offs.

    Europe’s carmakers love to say they want ‘cost effectiveness’ and ‘technology neutrality’ to be the fundamental principles for policymaking. It is amazing how quickly all that evaporates when talk shifts towards ending diesel’s tax privileges compared with petrol. Belgium and France, two ‘65% diesel’ bulwarks, have announced equalisation of fuel taxes on petrol and diesel over the next few years. And again, Germany is isolating itself more and more by clinging to diesel. I wish I had a time machine that could show us how in 2030 Silicon Valley and China have mainstreamed electric cars and left Germany wondering how and why it missed out.

    Thirdly, about the role the our dearest member states have played. Why on earth did we wait a full decade for the Americans to tell us our cars are wrong – with enormous cost to the health of our people, not to mention that of the car industry? The answer is simple. Member states wanted the power to EU-approve car models produced by their ‘own’ industry. But they refused any obligation to check the conformity of vehicles they approved. And they surely did not want any other Member state to have the power to recall cars they approved, or fine ‘their’ carmakers if something was wrong. And guess what? Not a single national type approval authority did any serious checks on the vehicles it approved, even though they all knew something was very wrong with the NOx performance of almost all diesel cars.

    It was the same with banks. In the early 1990s member states voted for EU-wide free flow of capital – but, of course, they opposed EU-wide policing of that capital market. Only when the system collapsed in 2008 could they fathom a European Banking Authority. Replace ‘capital’ with ‘cars’ and ‘2008’ with ‘2015’, and I am curious to see whether Germany sees the analogy too and pushes for a European Road Authority. But something tells me that even more tears will have to be shed first.