Tuesday

15th Oct 2019

Interview

Meet the man behind the EU's emissions cheating rules

  • MEP Bernd Lange at a bikers demonstration in Strasbourg, two years after writing the 1997 report on vehicle emissions (Photo: European Parliament)

In 1997, the digital revolution was still in its infancy.

The Internet had roughly 120 million users worldwide, the portable MP3 player was a novelty, and the most exciting application available on mobile phones was the game Snake on a Nokia.

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Certainly few people would have expected that manufacturers would one day introduce software that could turn off the emissions filtering system in cars.

But a German centre-left member of the European Parliament, Bernd Lange, had noticed the increase of the use of electronic systems in cars.

When writing a report in 1997, he introduced the concept of defeat devices into EU legislation.

Basically, a defeat device is anything that reduced the activity of a anti-pollution system in a car under specific circumstances.

Almost 20 years after Lange's report came out, Volkswagen Group admitted it had cheated on emissions tests. The company had used defeat devices.

“It seemed to be realistic that besides some mechanical defeat devices, which are more or less identified quite easily, these electronic defeat devices could be possible. Therefore I introduced this amendment,” Bernd Lange told EUobserver in an interview.

Lange has been an MEP since 2009, after a previous stint from 1994 to 2004.

Accurate predictions

The 1997 Lange report about emissions from motor vehicles laid down the amendments that the European Parliament wanted to introduce to legislation proposed by the European Commission in 1996.

In an accompanying statement, Lange correctly predicted that car manufacturers “will of course design their vehicles to meet the test cycle”.

He also noted that “substantial differences” could be expected between emission values measured in the test labs, and real-world emissions. In the past months it emerged that many of the discrepancies are caused by cars equipped with defeat devices.

“Of course [the concept of defeat devices] was new, and I had to convince my colleagues. But there was no big resistance,” he told this website in his office on the 12th floor of the European Parliament building in Brussels.

The language of the definition was slightly tweaked in the subsequent negotiations with member states, but the final version published in 1998 was essentially Lange’s input. It has been copy-pasted into subsequent legislation unchanged.

Loophole

Lange also introduced an exception, however: a defeat device may be installed into a car if it is used to protect the engine. He said he did not remember why the exception was added.

Earlier this year, many carmakers admitted to having used such techniques, claiming that because of the engine protection argument, it was legal to do so.

In hindsight, could Lange have foreseen that carmakers would use his engine protection exception as a loophole?

“No. As we discussed this, there was no discussion about exceptions. It was for me totally clear that defeat devices shouldn’t be allowed”, he told this website.

Some cars switch on the defeat device - and thus are more polluting - when it is colder than 17C outside.

“Under 17 degrees. It’s unbelievable,” said Lange.

The use of defeat devices under such circumstances is controversial, because such temperatures are hardly exceptional in Europe. EU rules clearly say anti-pollution measures should work during normal use of the car.

Vague rules?

But the German transport ministry said in a report in April that the term normal use is “linguistically very vague [and] allows room for interpretation”.

The German MEP of the Social Democratic Party, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition, disagreed.

“Is the legislation too vague or is the [supervision] not hard enough? The acceptance of this 17 degrees for example, is totally out of the scope of the legislation. Perhaps this report is also trying to put the responsibility away from the German authorities”, he said.

During the interview, EUobserver referenced the following quote from the German report.

“The regulations governing defeat devices which have been applicable so far cause legal uncertainties among manufacturers and are not a sufficient basis to help type approval authorities to distinguish between lawful and unlawful defeat devices and to take legal action against the latter.”

After the word “manufacturers”, Lange made a large snorting sound - it was a good thing he was not drinking anything at the time.

“In my understanding the language is quite clear,” said Lange. “There is no room for interpretation. This is perhaps really due to the interpretation of some local authorities, the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt for example.”

Germany’s Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (Federal Motor Transport Authority) is the authority which is responsible for checking if cars are allowed on the road, as well as making sure that those on the road are actually complying with emissions limits.

Industry lobbying

There are suspicions that the importance of the car industry to the German economy has had an influence on the levels of enforcement.

“To overcome industry interests you need really a big public discourse and a push from society,” Lange noted.

“Car manufacturers always raise the cost question and the competition situation. Therefore sometimes the emphasis to push for strong legislation is not well developed,” said the social-democrat, noting the “supranational level is really important”.

Lange had wanted the enforcement of the emissions rules to have been fully European, to prevent such conflicts of interests.

“I’m deeply convinced that my legislation in the 90s was only possible on a European level,” he said.

“The discussion I had with some manufacturers coming from some member states showed me very clearly that in these countries there would never be such an emission regulation possible.”

In January, the EU commission proposed to change the rules, and have more EU oversight. MEP Lange thinks the plans go in the right direction, but also noted that one could ask why the proposal came “so late”.

So, why did it come so late, EUobserver asked?

The MEP laughed.

“Yeah. The problems were evident and everybody knew that”, he said.

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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