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9th Aug 2020

Car emissions testing: 'whole system is corrupt'

  • London smog: 'We spend billions per year on tests in a lab. Useless … We want to clean up the environment, not the labs' (Photo: stu mayhew)

Volkswagen is not the only car company that used illegal devices to cheat emissions tests, said Axel Friedrich, a German emissions testing expert who is a co-founder of the NGO that notified US authorities something was wrong with VW's test results.

"You will see tomorrow night on German television the next case", Friedrich said on Wednesday (21 October) in the European Parliament.

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"It's not only diesel, it's also gasoline. The whole system is corrupt", he added.

Although he refused to single out companies, he noted that he "heard a number of statements [from other car companies] which I know are lies. We'll realise this in the next couple of weeks."

According to Friedrich, it was already well-known to those involved that car companies must have been cheating during the laboratory tests.

But Volkswagen "tried to keep it secret. This is when journalists get more interested. If it's open, nobody cares. If it's secret, you jump on it", he told a group of around twenty journalists during a round-table discussion organised by the parliament's left-wing Green group.

But the signs were there. While the cars did well on the laboratory tests, air quality in Europe's cities did not improve in tandem.

More than half of the EU's member states are currently facing infringement procedures from the European Commission for failing to comply with EU targets on air quality.

"If the car [industry] would not [have been] cheating, we would have met all these goals of the air quality directive", said Friedrich.

The German retiree is former director of the Environment, Transport and Noise Division of the German federal environmental agency, but recently became a regular voice in German media after the Volkswagen scandal involving illegal software which allowed VW’s cars to appear much cleaner than they actually were.

The scandal was exposed after US authorities investigated claims from the International Council on Clean Transportation, an NGO of which Friedrich was one of the founders.

Friedrich praised the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which carries out random checks even after cars are certified.

Industry lobby

"We have 28 European agencies for certification. They compete. We have more than 50 certification test labs. They compete. And nobody controls them. … We make laws, but no enforcement. We have big industries which lobby heavily to avoid these controls."

Under EU rules that came into force in 2007, member states should have had by 2009 "effective, proportionate and dissuasive" penalties in place for the use of defeat devices.

"It's 2015, can somebody name me one member state that has done this? I don't know one”, said Friedrich.

A Commission spokesperson told this website that all 28 EU countries have told the Commission that they transposed the relevant directive.

"This information suggests that they have implemented a system of penalties, although many Member States have not communicated their national rules to the Commission separately", the spokesperson said.

She did not want to comment on whether the Commission has started infringement procedures against those countries, but did stress the Commission is "following national authorities' policing and enforcement of EU rules in the automobile sector very closely".

Real driving

Friedrich proposes scrapping laboratory tests altogether, and only having random surprise checks under real driving conditions.

"We spend billions per year on tests in a lab. Useless. … We want to clean up the environment, not the labs", he noted.

The Commission has introduced a new test called the Real Driving Emission (RDE) test, the final elements of which are currently being negotiated.

In a written response to questions from MEPs during a heated plenary debate earlier in October, industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska wrote that the RDE test procedures "will be an appropriate answer to the shortcomings of laboratory testing and will considerably reduce the risk of defeat devices being used".

However, Friedrich does not share this assessment, saying that industry is doing its utmost to ensure that this 'real drive' test does not replicate real driving conditions.

He noted that the conditions during which RDE tests will be taken, are not average driving conditions and exclude, for example, a car motor standing idle for a while (as would be the case in a traffic jam).

Coming up in plenary

The European Parliament, meanwhile, is working on a text to adopt next week during its plenary session in Strasbourg. The MEPs will vote to decide whether they want the Commission to launch an investigation, or failing that, a parliamentary investigation. A call for an independent EU agency that oversees emissions compliance is also proposed.

The Commission has repeatedly stated that it does not have the power to investigate the scandal.

Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout says that while strictly legally speaking that may be true, there are "plenty angles" which the Commission could use, such as a state aid probe.

"The EU also does not have power over taxation, yet it still investigated tax rulings via a state aid case."

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