Sunday

11th Dec 2016

Investigation

'Unfixing' VW cars: A new trend in emissions tampering?

  • Volkswagen spokesman admitted there will be customers who will choose to ignore the recall. (Photo: Robert Couse-Baker)

One year after Volkswagen Group (VW) admitted it had cheated on emissions tests, several millions of Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, and Seat diesel cars emitting far beyond the EU limits are still driving around in Europe.

In fact, there are already signs that some customers do not want the cheating software removed, amidst a wider concern that despite EU limits, individual drivers choose to have anti-pollution filters removed for the sake of personal financial gain.

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After the scandal broke, VW has begun to offer a “technical solution”. However, for each of the affected models, its “fix” needs permission from the German authority which had certified the affected cars for the EU market.

A total of 8.5 million cars sold in Europe were fitted with the cheating software. It is not known how many of those cars VW has retrofitted so far, Volkswagen Group spokesman Nicolai Laude told EUobserver on Wednesday (7 September).

In August, Belgian VW importer D'Ieteren told Belgian press that almost 15,000 of 315,000 cars had been retrofitted - slightly below 5 percent.

But Laude noted that that it would not be fair to compare the number of retrofitted cars to the number of totally affected cars, because before VW can start the recall of a particular model, it needs permission from the German authority which had certified the affected cars for the EU market.

For the batch of “several thousand” cars that received the first retrofit approval, in February, he said 80 percent had been done.

VW is confident

The VW spokesman added he was “very confident” the company's retrofit effort will be a success, although he admitted there will be customers who will choose to ignore the recall.

“We will try to do our best to make sure that the customer will come and do that fix,” said Laude. “But some people would say: 'My car is fine, this is not so important for me'.”

He noted that, while in Germany and Austria the authorities have issued a mandatory recall, their counterparts in many other countries have not.

Moreover, there may be used cars on the road which now have a third or fourth owner who bought them through unofficial channels. In that case, the car company has no way of reaching the owner.

Because the scandal involved the environmental performance of the car, rather than personal safety issues, the incentive for customers to cooperate may also be lower.

Fear of higher fuel consumption

“In the Czech Republic, people don't care about Dieselgate,” an engineering academic at the Czech Technical University, Michal Vojtisek, told EUobserver in Prague last May.

“Actually, there are discussions on the internet how to undo the repair done to remedy Dieselgate. People fear that they will have higher fuel consumption if the vehicle is running properly,” he noted.

There have been reports from consumer organisations that after the fix, fuel consumption has indeed gone up for some models, something which VW has denied.

“Many self-appointed NGOs are not necessarily in a position to carry out measurements on the ground taking into account all the relevant aspects,” VW's Axel Eiser told MEPs of the Dieselgate inquiry committee in Brussels last July.

Private tampering

Nevertheless, several garage holders have informally confirmed that “quite a few customers” had complained about increased consumption. This website went undercover to ask UK-based garages if they could return the cheating software.

“We can help you,” one of them said. Another said it could not put the same cheating software in place, but did offer other ways to boost performance of the car.

While it is unknown how big the business is, it is not hard to find shops online that offer tampering with the emissions filter. That is a problem which goes beyond the VW scandal.

“You can have your particle filter removed and then buy a software patch to the engine control unit so the engine control unit believes the particle filter is there and working,” said Czech engineer Vojtisek.

A European Commission official, who requested to remain anonymous, said there are no figures or even estimates of how often private individuals dump their anti-pollution devices from their cars.

“The issue probably varies from one country to another but we only have information from media reports,” the contact said.

Vojtisek does have an estimate for emissions tampering, which includes illegal modification, an inferior mechanical condition, or an overdue periodic inspection that was in cooperation with the inspection body.

“I have asked several colleagues and we agree that in the Czech Republic about one third of the vehicles has some emission tampering, although it is impossible to find the official statistics.”

'Common practice'

“It could be that out of that one third only some produce very high emission levels. But I think it's not unusual or extraordinary. It is very common practice,” he noted.

According to the EU commission source, such tampering mostly takes place by removing the diesel particulate filter for particle emission reduction, with which all new vehicles must be equipped since 2011.

In April, British newspaper The Guardian reported that since 2014, authorities in the UK had found 1,188 vehicles whose filter had been tampered with.

Those filters are there to reduce environmental and health damage. So why do people have it removed?

“You save a little bit of money on the repair of the vehicle, or a little bit of fuel,” said the Czech engineer Vojtisek.

“You don't pay the cost, it is the other people that breathe the exhaust that pay the cost, so for individuals it's economic advantage,” noted Vojtisek.

So what about owners of VW diesel cars that refuse or roll back the retrofit?

Outdated lab test

Well, the sour truth is that the Volkswagen “fixes” will actually do little to improve air quality.

The company has designed its retrofitting solutions purely at making sure the cars still pass the emissions laboratory test.

These lab tests consist of 20-minute drive periods in a room that is kept between 20C and 30C, in conditions quite unlike the real world.

A new, more accurate test is scheduled to be introduced next year, but the cars on the road now only have to pass the old test.

This gap between lab results and real-world pollution is not unique to Volkswagen, but exists for virtually all cars on the European market, with some of them emitting 10 times the EU limit. Only a much wider recall would remedy that, but there is no legal basis for it, let alone public support.

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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