Caught black-handed

Automakers under suspicion of fresh cheating in new emissions test

Emissions Testing At DEKRA Facility
Are those numbers to high? Or too low? Source: Getty Images

The European Commission has concrete information suggesting that automakers are cheating in a new emissions testing procedure. Only this time, they appear to be over-polluting, in order to make it easier for them to meet stricter limits on CO2 emissions in the future.

The analysis of initial results from the new Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), which is based on real-driving data rather than lab testing results, indicates that “the official emission levels stated by the manufacturers could be overstated,” said a Commission paper seen by Handelsblatt.

That means there is a “clear risk” that the EU may miss its CO2 reduction targets for cars by 2025 and 2030, the paper said.

The automakers have been required since September 2017 to test new models using the WLTP method, a tougher procedure introduced in the wake of the VW diesel emissions scandal that had exploited the previous practice of only testing cars in laboratory conditions rather than on the road.

VW installed software that detected when a car was being tested and artificially throttled emissions of nitrogen oxide to ensure it met environmental standards. Other automakers were also found to be understating their true emissions and the affair undermined confidence in diesel technology that has been the foundation of Germany’s auto industry in particular.

Raising the benchmark

The CO2 levels established by the new WLTP test will flow into the calculation of the overall emissions for an automaker’s new car fleet in 2021, which in turn will become the benchmark for subsequent CO2 reductions that manufacturers must achieve to avoid heavy EU fines.

The Commission now fears that automakers are artificially inflating the starting benchmark to make it easier for them to demonstrate CO2 cuts in future.

The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has proposed requiring automakers to cut their CO2 emissions by 15 percent by 2025 and by 30 percent by 2030 in comparison to 2021. But that is still subject to the approval of the EU’s two legislative bodies, the European Parliament and the European Council.

Experts from the Commission’s Joint Research Centers (JRC) found evidence that current CO2 emissions were being exaggerated after analyzing many WLTP test reports and sifting through information provided by national supervisory authorities.

The CO2 emissions cited by experts were on average 4.5 percent above the true level, said the five-page paper the Commission sent to European lawmakers and the Council last week. In some cases the discrepancy was as big as 13 percent, the paper said.

Automakers appear to be using a loophole in the WLTP rules which only require official tests if companies understate their CO2 emissions — not when they’re overstated. In this case, the motto appears to be: the higher the level that becomes the benchmark for comparison, the better.

Automakers have once again gotten inventive, it seems. EU experts detected irregularities even in tests that took place under official supervision.

There is “some evidence that manufacturers configured their test vehicles in a way that the measured WLTP emissions are too high,” the paper said. There were even cases where the car battery was empty or the engine’s automatic start-stop system was switched off, for example, which increased the CO2 emissions of the affected cars by around 5 percent.

More explaining to do

The findings of the Commission experts are awkward for the auto industry.

The Commission is now pushing for increased transparency and tougher controls and wants the European Parliament and the Council to make clear in the current negotiations about the CO2 limits for 2025 and 2030 that the 2021 base level must be established through officially monitored tests, rather than on the basis of manufacturers’ emission claims.

The environmental federation Transport & Environment has already criticized the alleged practices. “It is clear now that the car manufacturers are also using the new tests to cheat and to sabotage the already toothless CO2 standards,” said the group’s director William Todts.

Political support for the industry has been severely hit by the VW scandal and ongoing investigations into other manufacturers like Daimler, Audi or Porsche.

Many EU members including France and the Benelux countries are already demanding that more ambitious CO2 reduction goals be set by 2030. They want a reduction by 40 percent and binding sales targets for low emission cars.

Any suspicion of new trickery will only strengthen such calls for tougher CO2 reductions.

Franz Hubik covers the car industry and regulation for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Till Hoppe is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Brussels. To contact the authors: hubik@handelsblatt.com and hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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