The entire German automotive industry has an emissions problem.
The air in German cities could be as pristine as at health resorts because diesel engines are said to emit 95 percent less fine particles than at the beginning of the 1990s. Emissions of nitrogen oxide, which is linked to human health risks and premature deaths, declined similarly over that period.
That’s why Volkmar Denner, the head of the largest automotive-parts supplier Bosch, declared the diesel engine to be an “air-cleansing machine” as late as January, months after the so-called VW Dieselgate came to light.
In reality, though, air quality is far from health-resort level. In 29 German regions, air pollution has exceeded the maximums allowed for nitrogen oxide for many years. The discrepency is due to the fact that diesel-powered vehicles that meet air-pollution limits in laboratory settings subsequently exceed those standards in everyday life on the roads.
“We can't imagine that this operational performance of the vehicles complies with U.S. law. ”
The thinking up to now was that this problem only involved diesel-powered vehicles from Volkswagen, where manipulated software generated acceptable emissions figures on the testing block.
But documents and tests seen by business weekly WirtschaftsWoche paint a different picture.
Even though Daimler, Peugeot and Opel haven’t manipulated software, they produce models spewing out high emissions on the roads. The toll on the environment and health is included in the price of diesel engines sold by all these carmakers. So just like VW, the other companies are threatened with regulatory action from the United States.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have been alerted. Both of these authorities, whose investigations triggered the VW scandal, are looking into possible legal infractions, WirtschaftsWoche has learned from agency officials.
The reason is the technology many carmakers use for filtering diesel engines. In order to effectively remove nitrogen oxide from diesel emissions and meet the Euro-6 standard, not only Volkswagen and Audi but also Daimler, Peugeot and Opel employ a procedure called selective catalytic reduction (SCR). For this technology, vehicles need sufficient quantities of a urea-nitrate solution called Adblue, which is contained in special tanks and supposed to filter the nitrogen oxide out of the exhaust.
But an investigation team in the Netherlands found in a study commissioned by the Dutch government that manufacturers inject far less Adblue into the catalytic converters than is required to meet the standards. If automakers were to mix the proper amount of Adblue with the car exhaust, significantly larger tanks for the additive would have to be built into the cars – something scarcely conceivable under current engine design. The study shows that the Adblue tanks “are 40 to 80 percent too small.”
The implications are stunning for an industry that has tried to separate itself from the Dieselgate scandal. Adblue amounts are plainly evident to engineers and managers, meaning knowledge of irregularities in emissions figures for diesel vehicles may have reached board rooms at other carmakers.
The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a watchgroup feared by carmakers, has forced Daimler, Renault and even the Munich manufacturer BMW to justify drastically high emissions of nitrogen oxide in the everyday operations of some of their vehicles with technical and legal explanations.
Excuses for the emissions rates are now being floated. Carmakers stated that at temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius (BMW, Daimler) or even 17 degrees (Renault), the cleansing of emissions is reduced for technical reasons, for example to protect car parts, and that these reductions are covered by the law.
It is questionable whether this is true. Temperatures under 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) aren’t considered extreme weather conditions in Europe or the United States. The crucial point about deactivation at certain temperatures is that it saves Adblue in the SCR process.
Lars Mönch, head of vehicle technology at the German Federal Environment Agency, doesn’t accept the carmakers’ justification. He says component protection was necessary only in the early stages of the technology to protect the still-sensitive catalytic converters.
“Today that’s not a problem,” Mr. Mönch said. “If the cleansing equipment is correctly adjusted, then an emissions temperature of 180 degrees is sufficient for the catalytic converter to function properly.”
Even with low outside temperatures, engines reach this state in only a few minutes. “Emissions cleansing must function at all temperatures and vehicle conditions,” he said.
In an ICCT analysis seen by WirtschaftsWoche and slated to be submitted to an investigatory committee of the British Parliament, the organization comes to the conclusion that “the public explanations of BMW, Renault and Daimler are scarcely plausible from a technical perspective.”
For manufacturers, Adblue continues to be a burdensome additive.
“We can’t imagine,” said ICCT’s European director Peter Mock, “that this operational performance of the vehicles complies with U.S. law.”
In 2014, it was ICCT investigations that revealed manipulated software used by Volkswagen. The organization works closely with CARB. If CARB and the EPA join ranks with the ICCT, then the diesel scandal might involved more German carmakers and more recalls, fines and punitive damages.
Audi and Daimler responded to inquiries from WirtschaftsWoche by stating emissions cleansing conforms to the legislation in respective markets. BMW considers itself to be on the safe side and says it achieved outstanding performance in all tests known to the company. Renault concedes that there is room for improvement and states that it has budgeted an extra €50 million to reduce the discrepancy between test cycles and road operation. Opel sees no problem, as drivers receive timely notification on the display that Adblue is running low.
For manufacturers, Adblue continues to be a burdensome additive. Automotive developers struggle with every kilogram of weight and liter of constructed space. An additional tank containing 50 liters or more simply doesn’t fit their concept. And carmakers want to spare their customers an expensive refill of urea nitrate between inspections.
In Volkswagen’s February 29 response to a claim for punitive damages at the regional court in Braunschweig, the company argued that volumes of Adblue “amounting to 5 percent of the utilized diesel fuel” must be injected in order to assure “effective cleansing of emissions.” This would mean that a VW Passet would have to include an Adblue tank of more than 70 liters in order to stay on the roads all the way to the next servicing. VW has never built such a tank even though – as the company concedes – U.S. legislation forbids refilling between the servicing intervals.
Instead of enlarging the tank, other manufacturers also reduced the level of emissions cleansing. Tests show that almost always when modern diesel motors leave the laboratory and head out on the roads, the level of nitrogen oxide rises.
The investigated vehicle brands have code names in the public version of the Dutch study, which was performed by TNO, a scientific organization. But WirtschaftsWoche is in possession of the actual names. For example, the Van Opel Zafira 1.6 CDTI ecoflex was examined. On the roads, it exceeds the maximum value of the approval tests by more than 800 percent. With 8 liters, the Adblue tank in the Zafira is significantly smaller than with all other competitors. The situation is similar with the Mercedes sedan C220 CDI and the sport utility vehicle Audi Q7 TDI.
With the latest generation of the 530d sedan, BMW has proven in the TNO investigation that the problem is solvable. Its engine seems to be so advanced that the amount of Adblue is sufficient and the emissions values remain below legal limits out on the roads. The study offers praise that the BMW model was the only vehicle in the test that has an Adblue tank of sufficient size.
The consequences of the diesel dilemma for car drivers are clear: “With new vehicles, there will no longer be any question,” said Wolfgang Eifler, professor for combustion engines at the Ruhr University in Bochum. “Customers will have to regularly refill Adblue along with diesel.”
By 2020, around 20 million diesel-powered passenger cars with Adblue tanks are expected to be on the roads in Germany.
But the necessary infrastructure is still lacking. Many gas stations offer the urea-nitrate solution in bottles and canisters of 2, 5 or 10 liters. But prices quickly rise to astronomical levels. Whereas a liter of urea nitrate costs around 60 cents for trucks, gas stations and garages often charge almost 10 times as much for passenger cars.
Manufacturers and mineral-oil companies have been working for years on constructing Adblue dispensers. But at the moment, there is a grand total of 20 such pumps in Germany. The gas station owners argue in commercial terms: no demand, no supply.
That is very likely to change.
This article originally appeared in business weekly WirtschaftsWoche.