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20th Jul 2018

Interview

Switching off emissions filters 'within the law' says car lobby

Carmakers are not to blame for configuring their emissions filters in such a way that they turn off during normal conditions outside the laboratory, one of Brussels' most important car lobbyists said.

“We are of the opinion, based on what we have heard from manufacturers, that what every manufacturer has done so far is within the law,” Erik Jonnaert told EUobserver in an interview this week.

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Jonnaert is secretary-general of the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), a Brussels-based car lobby group. ACEA counts many of the largest carmakers among its members, including Volkswagen Group (VW), which was rocked by the cheating scandal last year.

But VW was not the only producer of diesel cars equipped with so-called defeat devices. These devices switch off the emissions control system, and are banned.

EU legislation allows for an exception to that ban, and authorities in Germany and the UK revealed in reports last April that virtually all carmakers made use of that exception.

Several diesel cars switch off the system when it is colder than 10C outside, and others switch off when temperatures drop below 17C.

Jonnaert condemned what VW did, but defended the actions of others.

“What others are doing is different. It is not cheating,” he said. “But we understand concerns in the current climate being expressed. We need to address these concerns, and the best way to address the concerns is by being transparent.”

“Nobody was interested to know about that before. The questions were not even asked. Now the questions are [being] asked, and we need to be able to answer.”

However, not all of ACEA's members have taken heed of this advice.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) for example has refused to explain to the German authorities why some of its models had an emissions control system that switched off after 22 minutes – conspicuously quickly after the run-time of the required laboratory test of 20 minutes.

Technological reasons

According to Jonnaert, there are technologically justifiable reasons behind the use of these assumedly legal defeat devices.

“A car is complex. There is a lot of technology in there, people kind of have difficulties understanding it,” he said, adding he was not an engineer.

“It also has to do with the temperature of the air inside the car. Again that depends on the type of vehicle, the type of engine being used is different from car to car, which explains why you have different vehicle manufacturers on different vehicles coming up with different solutions,” noted Jonnaert.

“If some of these devices were used, it was to protect the engine. Are there grey areas? Yes, there are grey areas. Do they need to be addressed? Yes, they need to be addressed, and one of the more important things is that manufacturers need to be able individually to explain why they do such things on each of the vehicles.”

Critics have argued that pointing to the engine exception does not hold, if the conditions under which the defeat device is triggered are commonly found in Europe. The legislation also requires the emissions control system to be active during normal conditions.

Industry EU commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska lashed out at the car industry on Wednesday (29 June), saying that in northern Finland, temperatures are below 17C for almost the entire year.

“How can anyone consider this as normal conditions of use? If you have to make use of this exception to protect the engine all-year long, why do you sell cars to Finland? What you do is you make the exception the general rule,” she said in a speech, given after EUobserver spoke to Jonnaert.

It is what it is

The cheerful Jonnaert, who frequently chuckled mid-sentence, said this website “overestimate[d] the impact of these devices”.

Yet in Germany alone an estimated two million cars have emissions twice as large as measured, not counting the VW vehicles. These extra emissions are causing health and environmental problems, with Germany now failing to stay under the EU required limit for nitrogen oxides for five years in a row.

“No, no. I don't want to dismiss the issue. I don't want to dismiss the issue,” said Jonnaert.

“But it has to do with the current legislative framework. I mean, it is what it is. Again, I'm not saying that is not... I don't want to dismiss this. But if you are forcing manufacturers to follow certain rules, and then they follow the rules, and afterwards everybody is saying 'the rules were not tight enough', then you need to revise them, and that's what's currently happening.”

As of next year, cars will have to pass a new test that takes place on the road, which is expected to provide more accurate measurements of emissions.

Since last month, carmakers are required to provide information to the certification authorities about when the emission control systems are switched off.

Don't make law too complex

Jonnaert said new legislation currently being negotiated should also reduce what he called “the grey area”.

“While the type approval directive revision is a good thing, it's important to address the grey area, but let's not make it too complex. ... That's the issue we continue to face in Europe with legislation affecting the automotive industry.”

The lobbyist said European legislators have a 'I need to regulate everything that’s in there' approach, which leads to regulators having to play “catch-up”.

He noted the differences between the US and the EU. In the US, car companies carry out self-certification, and then face random checks. In the EU, the focus is on governmental certification before cars are put on the market.

“These are political choices to be made. Whatever choice you make has implications,” said Jonnaert.

The difference between the US and the EU became evident this week when the VW settlement was announced. VW will set aside some €13 billion to compensate consumers and clean the environment in the US. Meanwhile in the EU, VW has refused to provide any compensation.

“The difference between how Volkswagen is managing this in the US and in Europe again has to do with different legislation, different rules. It is what it is,” said Jonnaert.

“We may think this is not correct, but it is what it is. I know that Volkswagen there is taking this seriously, and is going to address the issue in the US and in Europe, as they should, in line with legislation.”

Jonnaert added that the car industry is taking responsibility.

“The industry has made enormous efforts in the past decades to improve and to reduce the environmental footprint of vehicles, and to invest in technology which reduces emissions. There is definitely a downward trend. … We need to do more. Will we do more? Yes we will do more.”

How the car industry won the EU's trust

Car companies are allowed to do carry out some testing of their own products thanks to some little-noticed legislation inspired by an industry-backed report.

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