Thursday

21st Sep 2017

Investigation

French diesel committee 'did not cover up for Renault'

The French government is being accused of protecting car company Renault in a recent report about toxic emissions, but one of the environmentalist members of the committee behind the document told EUobserver the report “is not hiding something about Renault especially”, just that the report could have been more detailed about all the car companies.

On Monday (23 August), the Financial Times wrote that a government report omitted some crucial details about Renault, a company that is 20-percent owned by the French state.

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The report is the result of the work of a commission set up by French environment minister Segolene Royal after the Volkswagen Group (VW) cheating scandal emerged in September 2015.

VW had equipped 11 million diesel cars worldwide with software – defeat devices – that could detect the cars being tested. Once they had left the test labs, the cars would increase their emission of dangerous pollutants.

According to an anonymous source quoted by the FT, one Renault car that was tested may have also adapted the level of emissions because it was sensing that it was being tested. This specific suspicion did not make it into the report.

The final report did say “the committee has not demonstrated the use of illegal defeat devices, but can not rule them out either”, urging authorities to investigate suspicious cases further.

“We met Renault twice,” said Charlotte Lepitre, campaigner for the French environmentalist group France Nature Environnement (FNE) .

She could not confirm the FT claim, but did note that a second meeting between the Royal commission and Renault was “not convincing”.

The first time Renault spoke to the Royal commission, they gave a clear presentation, noted Lepitre. But the company was invited a second time after test results came in that showed, among other things, that the Renault Talisman emitted eight times the EU limit.

“They did not give us any new explanation. I was not satisfied,” said Lepitre, adding that this discontent should have been made clearer in the report.

She said she did not agree with the statement in the final report that French manufacturers were “very collaborative and transparent”. By contrast, the report complained that German carmaker Volkswagen had a "very legalistic approach".

Lepitre noted that the language barrier may have played a role here, with French carmakers being able to explain themselves to their fellow compatriots in the same language.

But all in all, Lepitre said she was “quite satisfied” with what she called a “good report”.

Tough French, by comparison

The French report is the most damning document so far to have come out of a major European government.

Like previous reports by German and UK authorities, it found that diesel cars from many different manufacturers – not just Renault – are much more dirty in real life than during the test. This is because carmakers switch off or turn down the emissions regulation system under certain conditions.

By doing so, carmakers had “largely ignored” the impact this had on air quality, the French report said. But it also blamed years of inaction by national authorities.

“The absence or lack of transparency of surveillance testing and control by public authorities on emissions of vehicles offered for sale in the European Union constitutes incitement to fraud and therefore must be absolutely corrected,” it said.

The French report did not particularly spare Renault, some of whose cars emitted up to 11 times the EU limit. In a table in the report with the result of a selection of seven of the 86 tested cars, it included a Renault car as the worst performer.

In April, the United Kingdom and Germany had published similar reports that also found huge discrepancies between on-road emissions and test results. But these reports were milder in tone.

Both accepted most manufacturers' explanations for the exceeding the limits, without providing a detailed description of the carmakers' reasoning in the report.

EU wants source data

The European Commission wants the underlying data and methodology before it will draw its own conclusion in an assessment.

Before the summer break, something of a communication breakdown between Brussels and Berlin became apparent, as both sides appeared to be waiting for each other.

But on Wednesday (24 August), an EU Commission spokeswoman said in an email that they were still in contact with the UK and Germany "with a view to enabling us to finalise our assessment".

The EU Commission also wants to see the data underpinning the French report.

Published during holiday

While the French report was more explicit in its condemnation of national authorities and carmakers, it was published on a Friday afternoon late July.

“Everyone was on holiday,” said Lepitre, adding that her organisation has therefore not yet had the chance to write a thorough critique of the report.

But the saga is not yet over for Renault. It is still under investigation from the French anti-fraud agency after its offices were raided last January.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament's inquiry committee is due to resume its public hearings next week, when former EU industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen will appear as witness.

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