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15th Dec 2019

EU seeks more control on national car tests

  • If adopted, the European Commission will be able to check whether cars already on the road follow EU rules (Photo: Ralph .)

The European Commission wants more powers over the approval process of new car types for the European market, it announced on Wednesday (27 January).

The EU executive had already been looking to review the legal framework, but was convinced of the need for stronger EU oversight by last year's Volkswagen diesel scandal, which saw large-scale cheating on emissions tests by the German car manufacturer.

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“We have to make sure this never happens again,” EU competitiveness commissioner Jyrki Katainen said about Volkswagen's use of cheating software, the so-called defeat devices.

“Defeat devices are banned under EU law. National authorities have a standing obligation to police and enforce this ban. This unfortunately was not enough,” Katainen told press in Brussels, adding the proposed changes would make the approval system “more robust”.

“After the Volkswagen fraud, it was very obvious that the European Commission must have some supervisory power,” added industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, presenting the proposal together with commission vice-president Katainen, her superior.

They decided not to set up a pan-European approval authority, but rather to propose increasing the commission's power over the national type approval authorities, and over the certification test labs – the so-called technical services.

“I don't want centralisation but I want the EU to be able to check national authorities and technical services, which is not the case now,” said Bienkowska.

What will change?

If national governments and the European Parliament approve the proposal, the following changes will be introduced:

– Car manufacturers will no longer pay the test laboratory directly, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

– The commission and national governments will check if cars that have already been certified are compliant with safety and environmental requirements.

– If a car type is found to break the rules, like Volkswagen's have, the Commission will have the power to fine the company, if the national government has not. These fines can amount to €30,000 per vehicle on the market.

– EU countries will have to report to the commission annually about how many fines they have imposed.

– Car manufacturers will be forced to publish information about the software installed in their vehicles.

– If the commission thinks a test laboratory is not applying the rules strictly enough, it can “suspend, restrict or withdraw” that laboratory's permission to certify new car types.

The harmonisation proposal requires the approval of member states and the European Parliament, but Katainen and Bienkowska note they are confident they will get it.

The European Parliament, especially, should not be too hard to convince, considering a text it adopted in October.

Nearly three in four MEPs supported a text which the legislative body asked the commission “to redesign the current type-approval regime in order to guarantee that type approvals and certificates by national competent authorities can be checked independently and reassessed by the commission”.

'Real driving' tests

The two commissioners also defended on Wednesday the design of a new testing mechanism that looks at toxic and polluting emissions during so-called 'real driving' conditions.

Also in October, EU countries decided that under the new test, diesel carmakers would be allowed to exceed emissions limits by a factor of 2.1, and by a factor of 1.5 after January 2020. Currently, actual emissions are, on average, four times as high as suggested in lab results.

This was because the gap between lab test results and the actual polluting done by cars on the road was so large, that national governments said carmakers should be given some leeway to close the gap.

Katainen said that even with the flexibility, the decision “improves the situation significantly”.

The European Parliament does not have the power to influence the content of the new test, which was agreed through the so-called comitology procedure. It can only adopt or reject it.

Last month, the parliament's environment committee proposed to rejected it. The vote, in the EP's plenary session in Strasbourg, will be on Tuesday (2 February).

'Constructive and timely'

Following the proposal's publication, several interest groups gave it their praise.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) said the plan was “a big step in the right direction”.

“It is crucial that the cosy relationship between car makers, national authorities and testing services is broken up,” it noted in a press release.

Green lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E) said it was a “constructive and timely attempt to bring into line carmakers who, for decades, have actively undermined the approval system circumventing regulation and damaging public health, safety and the climate”.

However, T&E added it would have liked the commission to put in place sanctions on the national type approval authorities.

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