Have new tests uncovered the Dieselgate of the truck sector?

The emissions performance of Europe’s trucks is unreliable and often illegal. That is the conclusion of a German study which found that 20% of all trucks are over their prescribed NOx emissions limit, some by more than 300%, and evading the law appears to be a deliberate attempt to cut costs. T&E said the findings suggest a Europe-wide problem of the legal NOx limits being significantly exceeded.

Concerns over emissions from cars have been circulating for decades. The EU type approval system had failed to ensure emission limits are met in real-life driving conditions, while carmakers were also manipulating emissions tests, as exposed in the Dieselgate scandal. But the heavy vehicles sector has remained largely free from such concerns – until now.

A study by Heidelberg University, commissioned by T&E’s German member Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany, DUH), measured the emissions readings of 141 trucks, 40 in the Euro V emissions category, 100 in the stricter Euro VI category, and one Euro III vehicle. It found that 20% of them were exceeding the permitted thresholds for nitrogen oxides (NOx) – and the thresholds used in the study are sometimes more than double the permitted legal limit, so breaches of the threshold suggest emissions levels are significantly higher than what is legally permitted. The tests were carried out in real-life driving conditions using measuring devices in vehicles driving behind those being monitored.

Of the 141 vehicles measured on German roads, 52 were registered in Germany, with the other 89 coming from other EU states and some non-EU states, notably Russia, Belarus, Serbia and Turkey. The results reveal that a high number of vehicles from eastern Europe are among the 28 that failed the NOx test.

T&E’s emissions engineer Anna Krajinska said: ‘These results are just from one EU member state, but a similar study conducted in Austria suggests this is a Europe-wide problem. The failure to find emission cheating devices doesn’t automatically mean such devices have not been fitted, but there are a number of issues, including the durability of technology to cut emissions, that leave questions about how long emission control systems are effective.

What is needed is independent conformity testing of heavy goods vehicles to ensure emission limits are met throughout the lifetime of the vehicle. The European Commission should focus on such conformity testing, plus better on-road monitoring to catch lorries that are over the limit, when it draws up legislation for the post-Euro VI standards.

DUH is convinced the breaches of NOx limits are a deliberate attempt by hauliers to keep costs down. The technology that cleans emissions can be manipulated by emulators, illegal software or hardware which prevents the addition of the urea compound (AdBlue). No faults show up on the truck despite illegal levels of NOx. In many instances, the technology needed to cheat is cheaper than AdBlue use.

DUH’s press statement said the findings indicated a scandal of similar proportions to the Dieselgate manipulation in the private car sector. The international road transport expert Axel Friedrich, who monitored the compiling of the report, said: ‘If every fifth lorry that’s tested is not meeting the standards, it proves that the technology that regulates emissions is either defective or has been manipulated. Today’s technology enables vehicles of Euro V and Euro VI standards to be clean when on the road. We cannot allow the rules to be circumvented through cheating by hauliers and by inadequate monitoring.

DUH says the study highlights an urgent need for more effective monitoring of trucks, as well as sanctions against the operators of the vehicles. It says the trucks causing the most flagrant breaches of the emissions limits should be instantly banned from being driven, and only released for use after a verifiable repair of the emissions cleaning technology has been carried out.

The study was commissioned by DUH and undertaken by the Institute for Environmental Physics at the University of Heidelberg. It was also supported by the federation of transport entrepreneurs in Germany, Camion Pro. The traffic police in the state of Saxony also helped with collecting measurements.