Wednesday

20th Sep 2017

Investigation

Dutch authority suspects emissions fraud in Suzuki car

  • The Suzuki Vitara emitted more than 10 times the legal limit in some tests. (Photo: Klaus Krumböck)

Dutch car type-approval authority RDW said in a report, out on Monday (10 July), that “it seems” a Suzuki diesel passenger car with a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) engine contained “an illegal defeat device”.

RDW said it is suspected that the Suzuki Vitara has an emissions control system and its effectiveness is dependant on the amount of time the engine is running – something the Dutch authority called “impermissible”.

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It will run further tests, but also handed over the case to the Dutch public prosecutor.

“It is possible that a crime has been committed,” RDW said about the Suzuki Vitara.

Passenger cars in the EU need to pass a laboratory test, which measures toxic emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx).

In 2015, it emerged that Volkswagen Group, a German car manufacturer, had equipped millions of its diesel cars with illegal defeat devices, which fool the emissions test. As a result, the cars were environmentally dirtier than they appeared in the test.

Last year, it became clear that many automakers used defeat devices to limit the conditions in which the emissions filter system runs at full capacity. Car companies argue this is necessary to prevent damage to engines.

It also allowed them to use cheaper equipment, but led to a much higher level of NOx emissions in actual driving than during the lab test.

Normally, using defeat devices is not allowed by EU law. But carmakers have embraced the exception in the law which says that defeat devices are allowed if used to protect the engine.

The law does not specify the conditions under which that exception can be used, although it does say that cars should be clean in “normal” circumstances.

Last year, RDW tested some 30 cars it had approved, and found inexplicably high emissions in 16 of them.

In Monday's follow-up report, they said that they had received sufficient explanations as to why the emissions were too high in all but two cars.

The Dutch authority said more research is needed to analyse the emissions filtering behaviour of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, an FCA car. It said FCA was unable to convincingly show that the emissions strategy was needed to protect the engine.

Dutch public prosecutors have also been informed about the Jeep Grand Cherokee case, RDW said.

That diesel model is also under scrutiny in the US, for not properly reporting the way its emissions filter system worked. In January, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a so-called notice of violation.

FCA denied any wrongdoing. The Italian counterpart to RDW said in January that the Jeep Grand Cherokee had a "different engine calibration" in Europe and was thus "not affected" by the US notice.

Engine protection

As for the other tested diesel cars with emissions higher than they should be, RDW said that the producers were able to convincingly argue why engine protection was needed.

However, in some cases RDW said that automakers should have used better equipment.

In a letter to the Dutch parliament, the minister for infrastructure and environment, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, said that several manufacturers produced emissions control systems of “questionable quality”, which forced them to switch off or tune down the system to protect the engine.

Schultz van Haegen said she “condemned” that method, but said there was currently no legal option to sanction it, because EU law “explicitly allows” for reducing the effectiveness of the emissions filter, if needed, to protect the engine.

Dutch MEP Gerben-Jan Gebrandy criticised the Dutch decision to let the others go. “Inferior filters [are] not a valid excuse for too high emissions”, he said on Twitter.

Gerbrandy is the co-author of a report which criticised national authorities and the European Commission for not having done enough to prevent Dieselgate.

The Dutch minister also said, in the case of the Suzuki Vitara, withdrawing the type approval is not likely, since the emissions software has been updated. The same would apply to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, if RDW approves the update proposed by FCA.

If the two companies are prosecuted and found guilty of having used illegal defeat devices, the financial harm will be limited.

In the Netherlands, the penalty for using defeat devices is a fine of up to €19,500.

For FCA, a €19,500 fine would amount to 0.0003 percent of the company's profits for the first three months of this year.

Last year, minister Schultz van Haegen acknowledged the potential fine is “relatively low” compared to the large profits made by automakers.

However, she did nothing to change that. A spokeswoman told EUobserver in March that the ministry had not planned to increase the fines, because “it would not help”.

The applicable fine would be the one in place when the violation occurred, which would have been when the carmakers applied for certification – several years ago.

FCA did not want to comment.

Analysis

EU governments duck responsibility on dieselgate

If VW had cheated on emissions in the Netherlands, its fine would have been just €19,500. “I didn't think about the fines before,” the Dutch transport minister says.

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.

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