Sunday

18th Aug 2019

Investigation

Diesel scandal: 'Someone should bang his fist on the table'

  • Fleischhans with Czech magazine discussing his findings, published prior to the VW scandal (Photo: Peter Teffer)

It was 1986.

Libor Fleischhans was living in a communist country called Czechoslovakia, locked away behind the Iron Curtain. He began a job in the emissions laboratory of automobile manufacturer Skoda Auto, which in the planned economy was under tight governmental control, and was then called AZNP.

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  • A car undergoing a diagnostic test at Fleischhans' lab (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Thirty years ago, Fleischhans got a glimpse of the scandal that rocked the auto industry in 2015, when Volkswagen Group (VW) admitted it had used software to cheat on emissions tests. Skoda Auto, which since the era of privatisations has become a full daughter company of VW, had 1.2 million cars that were affected.

"Back then, I had already heard suspicions that the first electronically controlled cars had control units that could recognise the car was being tested. That was in 1986," he said.

"I cannot prove it, since I was very young, and I was new in the lab. But there were engineers in the lab who tested the car and spoke about these suspicions. This history is so long."

After fleeing to West Germany a few months before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Fleischhans returned to the Czech Republic, which separated from Slovakia in 1993. He now runs a diagnostic shop in Mlada Boleslav, an arms length from one of his regular customers, Skoda Auto.

"We offer diagnostics devices and emissions measurements devices. We also offer trainings, and support to garages that repair automobiles.

"We are quite famous in the Czech Republic, and large brands also come to our garage, like Mercedes Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, or Opel. When they have a problem with a car that they cannot fix, they request us to make a deep diagnosis."

Fleischhans stressed that his team of six employees is not dependent on car manufacturers for their income because they mainly repair cars and offer diagnostic analyses to the general public.

"We are not very dependent on Skoda, which provides around 15 percent of our assignments", he said

As one of his employees tries to find out why an old Toyota diesel has an abnormally high fuel consumption and exhaust temperatures, Fleischhans talks to EUobserver about a problem which has been known for years, but which regulators failed to address.

He showed a copy of the Czech magazine Svet Motoru (Motors' World), which published an article about the large discrepancies between emissions reported in the laboratory tests and those in real driving conditions. The article quoted Fleischhans saying that it looked like car companies only cared about passing the test, not about protecting the environment.

The issue came out on 14 September 2015, four days before the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that VW had broken the rules by activating the emissions control system only during lab testing.

Anomalies

Fleischhans and his team had raised the issue already in 2012.

"We had found things that were not normal. The training manuals of a certain brand would say that components in the car should work in a certain way.

"The throttle valve for diesel cars, for example, can be used to close the engine off from fresh air. But when you drive with the car, the valve is always open. It does nothing. That's surprising when the car manufacturer describes that the valve should be moving, opening and closing. It was really strange, really conspicuous."

When Fleischhans asked car companies like Ford and Opel to explain the anomalies, the companies would not elaborate.

"And why would they give us any answers? We are a small firm, a small diagnostics garage. We have no power. They are not obliged to answer our questions," said Fleischhans.

Those that did have the power also did nothing, he noted.

Before a type of car can be put on the European market, it needs a so-called type approval. This certificate is handed out by a national authority, which usually outsources the actual testing to laboratories known legally as technical services.

Friends all round

The technical services are responsible for carrying out the tests to verify that a car fulfils European requirements. The two official Czech test labs are Dekra and TUV Sud, both subsidiaries of German multinationals.

"But they have done nothing. They are friends with the car manufacturers. They are only testing on paper, and fill out forms like the manufacturers want," said Fleischhans.

As others have pointed out before him, there is a conflict of interest when the company you are testing, is also your customer.

"Dekra's only interest is revenue. It has little interest in the environment. Environment comes maybe at third place, not first. Their test method is outdated, and only profits Dekra, but gives 0 percent profit to the environment", Fleischhans.

TUV Sud declined EUobserver's request for an interview. Dekra did not respond.

Competence 'continuously' checked

The Czech transport ministry, in charge of assessing the skills of the technical services, agreed to answer questions but only via e-mail.

"Competence, professionalism and technical equipment is being checked continuously, we do more significant controls when technical services are extending their activities or certifications," spokesman Tomas Nerold said in his written reply.

When asked if he could quantify how often the ministry visits the labs, Nerold said it was "not possible to quantify that because it is a process depending on technical regulation development and interest of each of the technical services".

"Each technical service had to go through both entry and following audits which were associated to the case when these technical services were extending their certification," he said.

The ministry refused to publish the assessment reports that each EU state is required to file every three years assessing the skills of the technical services.

He said the Czech ministry carries out such audits more often than every three years, but that they "can't be published because, among other reasons, it may contain some information which could affect business transactions after being published (e.g. because of criticised imperfections or required remedy)".

That sounds like one or more of the technical services may have not been performing with the required competence and professionalism. But Nerold later added that his comment "was just an example".

Fleischhans, who said he regularly sits in a committee with the Czech transport ministry, Dekra, and TUV Sud, voiced harsh criticism.

"I believe the transport ministry has completely lost control of the activities of these two test laboratories. They are in charge of what happens, not the transport ministry, and that's wrong. Someone should stand up and bang his fist on the table", said Fleischhans

He said that he had flagged his findings to the Czech transport ministry, but that it never asked for more information.

"I believe that they think we knew a lot, but they don't want to know what we know. Maybe they suspect they would get in trouble with car lobbyists", he said.

He added that the Czech transport ministry is "not so significant in Europe".

'Afraid and insecure'

"The transport ministry does not have any own initiative, and does not want to engage. It is afraid and insecure," the Czech engineer said.

He highlighted an imbalance in the cat and mouse game between the enforcer and the potential cheater.

"When you are a good engineer, you will not work for the transport ministry as an official, but you will go to work for Google or Mercedes. There you will be paid well", said Fleischhans.

"These people who develop the cheat device are paid better than those who have to check for them. The monitoring people are people who are not kings of their trade. You do not need to expect from them to stick out their necks to protect the environment".

A Skoda advertisement in Mlada Boleslav (Photo: Peter Teffer)

It can be politically dangerous to stand up to Skoda Auto, a cherished employer in the Czech Republic. It is even more loved in Mlada Boleslav, a city of 44,000 people, around 60 km north-east of Prague.

"Last year, the city government of Mlada Boleslav wanted to raise the property taxes, which would hit Skoda. In response, Skoda threatened to pull its sponsorship of the local football club," a civil servant in the Mlada Boleslav city administration, who requested anonymity, told this website.

Skoda Auto's Mlada Boleslav factory and offices provide direct employment to some 20,000 people.

Czech gold

Skoda is also a national brand, said Czech politician Katerina Konecna.

"Everybody knows that the owner of Skoda is in Germany, but I think many people feel it is still our company," said Konecna, a member of the European Parliament in the far-left GUE group. To the Czech people, Skoda is "like gold", she said.

She said the Czech government made a strategic choice to develop its economy around the car industry.

Protecting the environment does not seem to be as high on the agenda in the Czech Republic as it is in some other EU countries. But Fleischhans said there were good reasons for that.

"Compared to Germany, we have very high prices but low income in the Czech Republic, but it is expected of us to have the same effort as in Germany. The Czechs do not have enough money to be environmentally aware," he said.

The engineer has created a non-profit association to warn to Czech people that polluting cars cause health problems.

"We want people to know more about this issue. If you don't have a filter in your car, then the next filter is here," he said, tapping the EUobserver reporter's chest: "Under your shirt. Your lungs".

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