Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

Dieselgate shows weakness of EU federalism-lite

EU states are hesitant to transfer power to Brussels, but the case of how car certification works, or doesn't work, in practice gives few arguments to supporters of the status quo.

Car makers caught out on dodgy EU claim

Carmakers claim they don't know what "normal" driving conditions are in terms of EU law. But their own lobby group already decided 14 years ago.

EU commission appeals Dieselgate ruling

The Court of Justice of the EU annulled legislation which relaxed toxic emission limits for cars. EU commissioner Bienkowska said the commission will appeal.

News in Brief

  1. North Macedonia EU-membership talks set for June
  2. EU ups benefits rights for mobile workers
  3. Chinese leader visits Italy, France as Rome joins 'Silk Road'
  4. EU agrees to sanction political parties breaching data rules
  5. EPP votes Wednesday on future of Orban's party
  6. Nordic MEP candidates in first ever joint EU election debate
  7. Merkel: I will fight to the 'last hour' for orderly Brexit
  8. EU affairs ministers demand Brexit clarity from London

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Latest News

  1. US glyphosate verdict gives ammunition to EU activists
  2. Have a good reason for Brexit extension, Barnier tells UK
  3. EU countries push for new rule of law surveillance
  4. EU rolls out €525m for military projects, but bars illegal tech
  5. May to seek Brexit extension amid UK 'constitutional crisis'
  6. Catalan independence trial is widening Spain's divides
  7. My plan for defending rule of law in EU
  8. Anti-corruption lawyer wins first round of Slovak elections

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  7. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  8. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  10. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  11. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us