Thursday

21st Sep 2017

Investigation

New on-road car emissions test cannot prevent all cheating

  • It is not uncommon for drivers on the German Autobahn to drive faster than 145 kilometres an hour, a condition not included in the new on-road emissions test (Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße)

New car models that are going through the EU's certification process will have to pass an on-road emissions test as of Friday (1 September).

However, experts say the Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test will not eliminate the risk of automakers cheating and repeating the Dieselgate scandal.

  • Driving at temperatures above 35C is not part of the RDE test (Photo: Anja)

"RDE is a better testing procedure than the old one, but it is still a testing procedure, so it can be gamed as long as there is no proper enforcement," said Peter Mock, managing director of the European division of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

The ICCT was the organisation which, together with West Virginia University, reported suspiciously high levels of dangerous nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in two Volkswagen Group (VW) vehicle models in the United States.

This led to VW admitting in September 2015 that it had equipped the cars with software functions that made the vehicles appear cleaner in the laboratory test than they actually were.

EU legislators had already known that NOx emissions were far higher on the road than in the laboratory, and even had suspicions before the scandal broke that some cars were designed only to pass the official test, but not necessarily to comply with EU limits during normal driving.

In that context, the EU had started development of the RDE test in 2011, which cars have to pass in addition to lab tests. It is one of Europe's most important regulatory answers to the Dieselgate scandal.

GPS-based cheating

However, according to the ICCT's Mock, emissions cheating will still be possible under RDE.

Carmakers could use so-called defeat devices, which VW used in diesel cars to detect being tested.

"You could use GPS information to find out if your vehicle is on a registered test track from the type approval authority, or from any of the testing agencies," Mock told EUobserver in a telephone interview.

Most modern cars are equipped with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and since there is only a limited number of testing facilities for the RDE test, a hypothetical company that wants to cheat has the technical means to programme a car's software for it to appear cleaner when it is driving near an official test facility.

But there are also other ways for automakers to design cars that pass the RDE test, while not always being clean on the road - something they may choose to do to cut costs.

Boundary conditions

The RDE test has some boundary limits, beyond which the emissions values measured are not included in the test results.

For example, NOx emitted while driving faster than 145 kilometres per hour, or during temperatures below -7C and above 35C, are not taken into account.

Dutch research institute TNO reported in July that it is possible automakers will try "to optimise the emission control strategy in order to comply with the RDE legislation, rather than to achieve low emissions in all real-world conditions".

Even though the RDE is a test more accurately reflecting real-world driving, it still does not cover all possible situations. While the boundary limits were designed to leave out the most uncommon 5 percent of all driving conditions, a combination of them can increase that percentage.

German Autobahn and Dutch caravans

TNO listed "a number of special, but not necessarily uncommon situations" that are not covered by the RDE test.

It noted that speeds above 145 kilometres per hour are "quite normal for many drivers" on the German Autobahn (motorway), but are not covered by RDE. This means that for these drivers, more than 5 percent of driving is probably not covered by the RDE test.

The researchers from the Netherlands also described a "typical but not exclusively Dutch situation": a family car towing a caravan.

The pollution emitted by a fully packed car, driving on a hot summer day, air-conditioning at maximum, and DVD players using electricity "to keep the kids entertained" will, for a large part, not be covered by RDE, but could "easily" amount to between 10 and 20 percent of a car's annual mileage, TNO said.

TNO noted that the EU regulation still says that cars should comply with the emissions limits "in normal use". This means that automakers cannot interpret the RDE requirements in such a way that conditions outside the boundary limits are "situations for which no rules apply".

"The RDE helps to define those normal-use conditions better than in the past, but in my opinion it should not be interpreted by the manufacturers that they only need to pass the RDE test," added Peter Mock of the ICCT.

Market surveillance

While Mock said the application of RDE in the type approval process as of Friday is "a step forward", his organisation is already thinking ahead about the "next stage of RDE".

There is a piece of legislation that still needs to be adopted - arguably the most important piece.

It is called phase four of RDE, and involves rules on market surveillance.

The European Commission and a working group of experts is currently in the process of drafting a legislative proposal. The group includes many participants from the car industry, but also from environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as ICCT and Transport & Environment (T&E).

The working group was previously used by car lobbyists to delay the process. On the whole, however, the NGO participants are relatively satisfied with the EU commission's steering of the fourth phase.

"The discussion is going well, and is going in the right direction," T&E's Florent Grelier told EUobserver.

Mock's ICCT colleague, Yoann Bernard, noted that the NGO is given "the opportunity to bring forward our own data and our own suggestions".

Nevertheless, Bernard added that his organisation is still very much constrained by limited resources, "unlike the car industry".

"For them it is quite easy to delay progress in the working group by bringing forward an endless flow of concerns," said Bernard.

Quality first

Originally, a draft legislative proposal was supposed to be done by early July 2017. On Tuesday, commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet told EUobserver that the proposal will be tabled "in the coming months", noting that it is a technically complex file.

"We always work as fast as possible, but quality does comes first," she said.

Both Caudet and the above-mentioned NGOs noted that it was never the intention to finish the legislative work of the fourth phase before 1 September, because market surveillance only applies to cars that have been on the market for a certain period of time.

So what effect will Friday's change have on automakers' ability to get their vehicle types approved for the European market?

A spokeswoman for the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) told this website that the entry into force of RDE has made "some" manufacturers consider the "earlier withdrawal from production of certain models".

She also drew attention to the new laboratory test - the so-called Worldwide harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP).

Testing burden

The two new tests "will certainly lead to a massive increase in the testing burden", said the ACEA spokeswoman, adding the type approval procedure "will be lengthened significantly".

But Mock noted that carmakers have had time to prepare for RDE.

"We should not forget that the emission standards have been in place for many, many years now," said Mock.

"As a matter of fact, there was a very long lead time, and it was just not used. It was used to basically game the system and to bring vehicles to production with emissions [levels] which were way too high."

2.1

Another point to remember is that for the first three years, automakers will still be allowed to emit 2.1 times the official EU limit.

The leeway provided was not due to technical concerns, said Mock, but was "a purely political agreement".

The European Court of Justice has been asked by the local governments of Paris, Brussels, and Madrid, to annul the decision to allow vehicles to emit 2.1 times the limit, exceeding the standard level.

Additionally, consumers buying a diesel car as of 1 September should realise that many cars approved under the old testing regime will still be for sale for several years.

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