What’s happening

Since VW’s cheating was exposed, more and more evidence has emerged highlighting how other companies engage in questionable practices. In October 2015, the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany, or DUH) revealed that Opel Zafira’s emissions were 2-4 times higher than legal NOx values when tested in four-wheel drive, while below the legal limit of 80 mg/km when the car was tested in two-wheel mode, as is required by the current EU test. A month later DUH tested a Renault Espace that produced 25 times the EU NOx limit when run with a warm engine. However, it met the limit when tested with a cold engine after “specific pre-conditioning” as is legally permissible under the EU test. All this suspicious data has been given to the German TAA responsible for certifying some of these vehicles, but no action has been taken.

In early 2016 many EU countries scrutinised their emission testing programmes to verify whether other vehicles have been fitted with similar illegal software. The results of the German, French and UK investigations showed huge discrepancies between lab and real-world emissions and widespread use of defeat devices for all models tested, yet no penalties have been levied or consumers compensated. Not only VW is involved; Renault, Opel, Ford, Daimler, Fiat and others are also implicated. T&E has summarised the main cheating techniques employed by carmakers in a briefing.

When summoned to give evidence, all carmakers refer to using the derogations that allow switching off 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 London, Berlin and Paris. This excuse is accepted by the national authorities, who prefer to protect home industry instead of applying the law rigorously.

In Europe – in stark contrast with the US where the authorities are forcing VW to comply with the law and compensate the misled consumers – politicians are behaving as if the VW scandal and Dieselgate never happened. Manufacturers are let off the hook and get away with just voluntary recalls despite breaching the EU air quality standards by a large margin.

Just as carmakers cannot switch off braking systems to preserve the life of braking pads, they shouldn’t be allowed to switch off after-treatment systems that control pollution in most road conditions in Europe. This is not a victimless crime. 71,000 people die prematurely due to air pollution every year in Europe, many choked by diesel fumes.

One clear conclusion from the current Dieselgate scandal is the failure of national vehicle authorities to enforce regulations on the road. Both the EU type approval framework (TAFR) and the periodic technical inspections rules (PTI DIrective) have to be swiftly reformed to ensure more transparency, independent testing and rigorous EU controls throughout a vehicle’s lifetime. The current TAFR proposals on the table endorsed by the European Parliament will help achieve that, but the coming months will see difficult negotiations between MEPs and member states, notably Germany and Italy, which are reluctant to give up national powers over carmakers. The European Commission (and potentially a new EU agency on vehicle surveillance) must have a bigger role in vehicle approvals, in-use checks and penalties with more on-road verification testing being done by independent third parties as foreseen by the new Real-driving Emissions regulations.