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29th Mar 2020

Investigation

EU told of possible emission cheating in 2012

  • Emissions testing in a lab in the Joint Research Centre in Italy, October 2016 (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The EU Commission and member states were informed of suspicions that carmakers were cheating emissions tests in 2012, an internal document seen by EUobserver suggests.

Shortly after the Volkswagen scandal emerged in September 2015, the commission said it had "no indications of defeat devices being used by car manufacturers in Europe". Defeat devices reduce the effectiveness of a car's anti-pollution system.

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An e-mail from the commission's in-house science body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), said in 2012 that a diesel vehicle was emitting much more nitrogen oxide (NOx) when the outside temperature was below 20C or above 30C.

The official EU emissions test, needed to acquire the certificate called type approval, takes place in a laboratory where it is always between 20C and 30C.

“This means clearly that the NOx strategy is optimised to the legal frame conditions during type approval measurements,” the JRC official writes in an e-mail dated 30 April 2012, more than three years before Volkswagen Group admitted to having cheated.

The email was addressed to someone in the commission's industry directorate-general (DG), and copied to other JRC colleagues, two addresses from the environment DG, and someone from the transport DG.

The e-mail said the device meant to reduce NOx is “fully activated only in a very specific window” of temperatures.

“There seems to be a new dimension of 'cycle beating' since not only the [test] cycle itself and the current engine and ambient parameters may be 'recognised' by the system, but there is also a kind of 'memory effect' implemented, influencing the engine strategy for at least 20 min after starting the engine at a specific engine temperature,” it went on.

The official test lasts 20 minutes.

The scientist also noted that the sample was small.

“Of course, we measured only one vehicle, and the results might not be generalized. But at least, we get an impression of what might be technically feasible.”

In response, someone from the DG industry wrote back four hours later.

“This is very useful and a clear case of "hard" cycle beating, i.e. the use of test cycle conditions for activation of emission control (and not just "neglecting" the emission control strategy outside test cycle conditions),” this official wrote.

The EU commission has always maintained that it knew emissions cheating was technically possible, and that since the end of 2010 it was known there was a gap between lab measurements and real-world emissions.

However, the EU executive said it never had concrete evidence of the use of illegal defeat devices.

On Thursday, a commission spokeswoman told EUobserver that it is "easy to look back at the past and interpret it with the knowledge of today".

"The email exchange between various Commission services in April 2012 took place in the context of a study conducted by the JRC on eco-innovation and which mainly concerned CO2 measurements. During that research, scientists and engineers noticed higher NOx emissions in a vehicle in certain temperature ranges," said spokeswoman Lucia Caudet.

"They were making scientific observations rather than acting as enforcers, which is not the role of the Commission for now," she noted, adding that member states, responsible for enforcement, were informed two days later.

This article was updated on Thursday 20 October to include a comment from the European Commission

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