The fact is that VW simply cannot fix its 2.0 litre diesel engines – currently fitted with outdated lean NOx trap (LNT) technology – to meet the EPA’s stringent air pollution regulations without a complete re-design. The only way to bring the cars into compliance would be to replace LNT with a costlier, more complex and more effective technology known as Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR). This uses reagent urea to capture NOx and turn it into harmless nitrogen and water. SCR should have been the technology VW used in the first place on all of its diesel cars sold in the US, but greed coupled with ambition to become the world’s biggest carmaker dictated the priorities: cutting costs and increasing sales at any expense.
In Europe – in stark contrast with the US where the authorities are forcing VW to comply with the law – politicians are behaving as if the VW scandal and #dieselgate never happened. Due to loopholes in EU law, VW are now shamelessly claiming that they have never breached any rules in Europe and did not install anything (technically) illegal in their 8.5 million affected European cars.
‘Defeat devices’ have almost identical definitions in Europe and the US and are outlawed in both except for in some well-defined circumstances, such as over safety concerns or when protecting engines from damage. However, Europe – as opposed to the US – has literally no provisions for: 1) manufacturers to disclose and justify where they use such exemptions; and 2) authorities to verify the legitimacy of such claims. In Europe manufacturers abuse this loophole and national regulators turn a blind eye
The recent investigation by the French Royal Commission shows that most diesel cars tested to date have suspiciously high NOx emissions on the road. Not just VW, but Renault, Opel, Ford, Daimler and others are also implicated. When summoned to give evidence, all carmakers refer to using the derogations that allow switching off of emission abatement technology if it endangers safe performance of the vehicle engine. Often this derogation is used in temperatures below as little as 17°C, which is encountered almost 80% of the time in cities like Paris.
No one is asking any hard questions or scrutinising the use of exemptions by manufacturers in Europe. Instead, carmakers are simply allowed to get away with their false claims and fix cars through so-called “voluntary recalls”. This demonstrates how discredited the current EU system is, lacking any effective oversight of cars or enforcement of EU rules. National agencies responsible for approving cars and their responsible governments prioritise protecting their car industries over the health of citizens, colluding with the car industry and cushioning them from any scrutiny or potential litigation.
The weak regulatory oversight arises since carmakers can choose which national agency approves their cars for sale and pays them. Anxious to retain the carmakers’ business (and their jobs), regulators don’t ask too many questions and enforce the generally weak rules leniently. Luxembourg and Malta (both without a car industry) conduct a roaring trade approving cars which can be sold anywhere in Europe. There is no quality control of how different national regulators enforce the law, or no transparency on who type approves what. The fact that European authorities had the same VW emissions data as their US counterparts but failed to act only serves to prove the point.
EU member states, when they had the opportunity to tackle diesel NOx emissions, sided with industry, allowing cars to emit more than twice the legal limit until 2020, and 50% more after that. A pattern emerges of governments letting the car industry off the hook – instead of making them comply with the law at the expense of consumers, their health, our environment and the EU’s credibility.
But there is still hope. The European Parliament has recently set up an enquiry committee into the VW emissions scandal. This should shed light on what went wrong with enforcing European regulations and expose national regulators who failed to disclose cheating despite the evidence in front of them. The disclosures should also influence the new proposals to reform the EU testing system, recently proposed by the Commission and discussed in parallel by the Parliament and the member states. The time to act is now. These new proposals are a once-in-a-decade opportunity to fix the failed European testing system, to restore consumer trust, to create a level playing field for the industry and to clean up the air we all breathe.