20th Mar 2018

Germany to patch up EU law on car emissions

  • Admission that EU rule is too vague comes nine months after VW scandal broke (Photo: David Tubau)

Germany, the country at the heart of the VW emissions scandal, is proposing a change of wording in EU rules to prevent car manufacturers from using a loophole that allows them to emit more than EU limits.

It will propose its amendment to the EU regulation at a meeting of transport ministers in Brussels on Tuesday (7 June).

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Car makers have admitted that they used so-called defeat devices, which limit or shut down the vehicle’s emissions control system in certain situations.

Volkswagen used a defeat device to cheat emissions tests. When national investigations in Germany, France and the UK revealed in April that all car makers use switch-off software regularly, the automotive industry defended this use by saying it was legal under an EU exemption.

“During the investigations, it emerged that European legislation governing acceptable and prohibited forms of influencing exhaust after treatment is interpreted in different ways,” Germany said in a paper it published ahead of Tuesday’s EU transport council in Luxembourg.

The rules say that temporarily turning down or turning off the technology that reduces emissions is allowed if it is done to protect the engine. But the EU regulation also states that emissions must be reduced during “normal use” of the car.

Car companies have used a very broad interpretation of the exemption. Some said, for instance, that to protect the engine, the emissions control system must be reduced if it is colder than 17C outside.

Critics said this is ridiculous, since in normal winters in parts of Europe it is often colder than that. They also said that there is other technology available to makes diesel cars cleaner without risking damage to the engine.

For its part, the German transport ministry in April said that the term “normal use” was “linguistically very vague”.

“A consequence of the vagueness of this European regulation could be that the use of defeat devices could ultimately always be justified by quoting the protection of the engine if the manufacturer explains in a comprehensible manner that without such a device there is the risk of damage to the engine, however small it may be,” the report said.

The admission that the rules are too vague comes nine months after the VW scandal broke.

Neither Germany nor any other member state had ever complained about the loose EU language before the VW affair, an EU source said.

New wording

Germany’s proposed new wording is that the ban on defeat devices should not apply where “even if the best available technologies are included, no other technology is available to protect the engine against damage or accident and for safe operation of the vehicle”.

The current text said the ban on defeat devices can be lifted where “the need for the device is justified in terms of protecting the engine against damage or accident and for safe operation of the vehicle”.

The Brussels based green group, Transport & Environment, was not impressed by Germany’s proposal.

"The words Germany suggests adding to the regulation would not solve the problem of how you enforce the rules - something which member states failed at, despite clear responsibility to ensure cars comply with emission standards,” the group’s Julia Poliscanova told EUobserver on Monday.

Luxembourgish Green MEP Claude Turmes, who is a member of the EP inquiry committee into dieselgate, was also critical.

“The German minister of transport Alexander Dobrindt is trying to divert from the massive failure of his own type approval authorities by suggesting that the EU legislation was not clear enough," he said.

"Instead of aiming for a stronger market surveillance, Dobrindt is proposing measures which would even weaken the current legislative framework and allow more fraud in the future".

’Stunned' by inaction

Monique Goyens, the head of European consumer organisation Beuc, said in a letter to EU ambassadors that she was “stunned” by the lack of action against Volkswagen in the past nine months.

“There is an urgent need to clarify EU legislation concerning the use of defeat devices but this must not be the basis for member states to refrain from issuing penalties if it is deemed that a manufacturer has breached existing EU law,” she said.

Automotive News Europe, a specialist website, reported last week that VW has so far fixed just 50,000 diesel cars in Europe out of a total 8 million affected by the cheat revelations.


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