Sunday

11th Dec 2016

Investigation

Car makers caught out on dodgy EU claim

  • Barcelona is often just as warm as emissions test laboratories (20C-30C), but many European places are not (Photo: Julian Cosson)

Witnesses speaking on behalf of the automotive industry have given testimonies to the European Parliament's Dieselgate committee that are inconsistent with information known to the industry for years.

On 13 and 14 July, MEPs questioned representatives of Renault Group and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) as part an their inquiry set up after the Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal.

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  • Some of Renault's diesel cars would let the anti-pollution system work less hard when it was colder than 17C outside (Photo: Warren Rohner)

But the issue of too-high emissions reaches beyond just Volkswagen Group.

Diesel cars of all brands and types, that have passed the EU-required emissions test, emit many times more the EU limit when driving on the road.

MEPs asked Paul Greening, of the Brussels-based lobby group ACEA, whether car manufacturers think they should comply to the EU limits in real life, or only in the laboratory.

“We believe the emission limits are related to the test procedures,” said Greening.

Greening is himself a former official of the European Commission, amid broader concerns that the EU institution has too-cozy relations with big business.

This website found minutes of a meeting that Greening attended in 2004, when he said the opposite to his new testimony.

At the time, Greening was still working for the European Commission. He attended a meeting in London with representatives from the United States, Japan, and various European countries, to discuss a global law on real-world emissions from trucks.

The meeting was part of the so-called Off-Cycle Emissions Work Group. Off-cycle means: not during the predefined driving cycle used during testing.

They discussed whether the global regulation should require vehicle manufacturers to provide a compliance statement, effectively promising that they had complied with emission limits.

The German representative said the statement should include “in-use compliance”, or real-world driving.

“Mr. Paul Greening of the EU agreed that this was an important policy objective. Certification testing is only a part of the picture; the true information comes from in-use,” the minutes said, however.

Discussions by the same work group, held several years ago, also contradicted the statements to the EU enquiry by Renault Group's executive vice president engineering, Gaspar Gascon Abellan.

Renault was one of the companies that put diesel cars on the market whose emissions filter switched off, or turned down, when outside temperatures drop below a certain level.

That had never been noticed because the emissions tests took place in laboratories that always had a stable temperature of between 20C and 30C.

The Renault Group’s anti-pollution system only worked at full power when it was 17C or warmer outside. If the outside temperature dropped, as it often does in Europe, the system gradually became less effective.

Critics have said this conflicted with EU legislation, which said emissions control systems should work during normal use of the car.

Renault's Gascon told MEPs’ that normal use was not clearly defined in EU rules, though he would not say if he thought temperatures below 17C were abnormal in Europe.

What is normal?

“I'm not going to answer the question what normal conditions are … I can't judge what normal is,” he said.

Renault is being backed up by the German transport ministry, which last April said, in a controversial statement, that normal use is “linguistically very vague [and] allows room for interpretation”.

Germany’s recluse to the vagueness of EU laws came despite 13 years of talks between international regulators, often in the presence of industry, on the issue of normal conditions under which anti-pollution systems should work.

To illustrate the point, in a meeting in 2003 of the Off-Cycle Emissions Work Group in Canada, Stefan Rodt, of the German federal environmental agency, gave a presentation in which he said industry should not look for loopholes or freedom of interpretation.

According to the minutes, Rodt said “engines must comply with emission requirements in any randomly selected mode of operation, under almost all ambient conditions which may occur in real life”.

Maybe Renault and ACEA’s top brass never read those minutes.

But if they did, then their comments to the EU enquiry would be indefensible.

ACEA paper

The 2003 EU emissions group meeting was not an isolated example.

In 2005, the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA), a Paris-based entity, gave a presentation on “EU Normal operating conditions”, based on a 2002 paper from none other than ACEA.

Together with the Aristotle University in Tessaloniki, Greece, ACEA had analysed under which temperature and altitude 90 percent of vehicle-kilometres in the EU were actually driven by people.

The study found that a maximum altitude of 1,000 metres, and a temperature range of 2C to 30C should be considered normal.

It noted that under EU legislation at the time, the range was 10C-30C, and that the lower end should be lowered to 2C.

This discussion was related to emissions from trucks.

But in all good faith, there is no difference in what are normal outside conditions for truck or for other means of transport in Europe.

A 2012 discussion paper circulated among the participants of Cars 21, an initiative of the EU Commission which included members of industry, made no distinction between the two.

The paper said on passenger cars that “compliance with regulatory emission limits was not linked to a test cycle but to 'normal conditions of use' of a vehicle”.

Laws to make clean labs?

If the case ever came to court, judges would also look at the spirit of the legislation.

In that sense, the regulation which laid down the emission limits for passenger cars is clear.

The preamble says that “a considerable reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel vehicles is necessary to improve air quality and comply with limit values for pollution”.

In other words, the aim of the rules is to clean up the air on the roads and streets of Europe, not just in laboratories.

Investigation

Why doesn't the EU have a road transport agency?

There are EU agencies covering maritime transport, aviation, and railways, but road transport never got its own. Some MEPs are now advocating one, to the chagrin of many member states.

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