Software solutions

Diesel software updates likely to miss deadline

vw dieselgate, diesel emissions software upgrades
Working on a deadline. Source: DPA

Last year, Germany’s carmakers promised to update anti-pollution software on older diesel-powered vehicles by the end of 2018 in an effort to prevent diesel bans. The updates look to be done on schedule, but actually uploading the code to all the vehicles is running far behind.

Updates have to be sent this Saturday, Sept. 1, to the Federal Motor Vehicle Transport Authority, or KBA, to be assessed at its new, state-of-the-art emissions-testing complex in Flensburg, close to the Danish border.

Until recently, the authority just accepted industry’s own testing data. But after the Dieselgate scandal revealed industry emissions data to be extremely unreliable, the KBA had to develop its own testing capability.

Germany’s major automakers promised the government last year to update the software of older diesel fleets in order to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 30 percent. The industry and Berlin wanted to prevent diesel bans in city centers, although Hamburg has already blocked diesel cars on some streets and other cities have announced they will follow suit.

Dieselgate lingers on

The KBA has to check every software submission to make sure the updates will genuinely reduce pollution — there is suspicion that carmakers may still be in the habit of fiddling with emissions data. Only after KBA approval can the software updates be approved for installation in the country’s 5.3 million older diesel cars. Newer cars, with cleaner engines and lower emissions values, do not have to be updated.

Environmental groups have called for installing anti-pollution filters on all diesel cars. But the car industry balked at the cost, suggesting software updates as an easier and cheaper alternative. With modern engines thoroughly computer controlled, software changes can make a substantial difference, the carmakers say.

27 p17 Breaking down the burden-01

There is a lot at stake for the industry. Faced with tough competition from the US and China, it has belatedly begun to invest tens of billions of euros in electric cars. But it will take years for the new technology to become dominant. In the meantime, the industry must maintain diesel as a viable option, cutting emissions without impacting performance or fuel efficiency.

Under pressure from consumers and the EU, the German government wants to appear tough on the car industry. On a visit to the KBA last week, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer emphasized that no delays would be tolerated for the new software. He acknowledged that time was tight to install software in diesels by the end of 2018 but said he expected the industry to deliver.

Privately, the industry acknowledges that only a fraction of Germany’s diesel cars will be updated by the end of December. Manufacturers are praying Mr. Scheuer will show flexibility as the deadline approaches.

Make it mandatory?

Even if the KBA quickly approves the new software, as it says it will, getting the updates into millions of cars will be a massive challenge. Without a mandatory recall, there is currently no legal obligation on manufacturers or car owners to make changes to their cars. It’s all voluntary.

BMW says it is waiting for KBA approval for the software updates it has already submitted, but says it does not know how many BMWs will get the update. VW has already updated millions of its cars in the wake of Dieselgate and says it and subsidiary Audi are awaiting KBA approval.

Manufacturers point out that voluntary updates have lower follow-through than mandatory recalls. Audi made a voluntary update available for one of its models last year; so far only around one-third have taken them up on the installation.

Daimler, maker of Mercedes, agrees. Across Europe, about 3 million of its cars, 700 different models, require an update, and it intends to actively seek out its customers to encourage them to have the work done. However, Daimler emphasizes that “in view of the large number of cars involved, it will take a long time before the software is installed on most vehicles.”

In an action beginning last year, Daimler succeeded in updating the software on 95 percent of its compact and V-class models. In recent months, the German government has singled the company out for severe treatment, demanding a mandatory recall of 774,000 diesel-powered vehicles.

Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. Martin Murphy covers the steel, car and defense industries for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: fasse@handelsblatt.com, murphy@handelsblatt.com

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