Long, hot summer

Production hit as carmakers botch new emissions tests

Volkswagen – Autoturm
Only a few more to go. Source: DPA

A new VW sits at a testing station inside the carmaker’s Wolfsburg works. And it’s going to be there for a while. The Arteon model is being tested for compliance with the European Union’s new WLTP regulations, or Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure. The 30-minute cycle the Arteon must pass measures fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, as well as other pollutants.

But that’s not all. The full cycle of tests and results takes up to 48 hours. For example, the cars must be tested at precisely 21 degrees centigrade, meaning things need to be warmed up or down depending on the ambient temperature. Previously carmakers could just have tested one model of a new line. Now all variants of a new line, and all combinations of its body and gearing, have to be tested.

The hours required mean that the testing agencies and the carmakers’ in-house laboratories have been working around the clock to get things done by September 1. From September last year, carmakers had to comply with WLTP standards if they were producing new models. And from September this year, all new car registrations in the EU will have to comply.

“Our testing stations are working in three continuous shifts,” said a spokesperson for TÜV SÜD, the German testing agency carrying out the work in southern Germany. “We are fully booked until autumn because of the high demand.”

“Instead of continuing to balk at this, the auto industry would be better off investing their energy into meeting these deadlines.”

spokesperson, European Commission

The testing is also causing another major headache for Germany’s biggest carmakers: The deadlines look likely to lead to serious bottlenecks in production. At VW, production may end up slowing in August and there has been talk of staff being forced into part-time hours, or four-day weeks.

“Under such adverse circumstances, there could be temporary bottlenecks in our supply program,” the new boss of VW, Herbert Diess, warned at the company’s annual general meeting in May. The problems might also eventually impact on VW’s profits.

“Everyone concerned is working as hard as possible to minimize the impact as much as they can,” VW’s human resources chief, Martin Rosik, said. Still, at the end of last week, it had become clear that VW subsidiary Porsche would be working on limited numbers of its SUV model, the Cayenne, until at least early next year.

“The EU deadlines on WLTP certification, recently brought forward by one year, are an enormous burden,” Porsche boss Oliver Blume complained.

“You’re going to feel the brakes coming on strongly in the second half of the year,” a source inside VW cautioned.

Other companies have warned of similar problems, including Renault and Hyundai. Daimler and BMW say things are not quite as bad for them. Although the brands have both taken single models out of production, spokespersons contacted by Handelsblatt said they don’t envisage big outages.

Exportrekord für Bayern
Where do Porsche robots go on holiday? Source: DPA

The German auto industry association, VDA, isn’t happy. It says the European Commission has not given the carmakers enough time and points out that more than 500 types of new vehicles are still missing the certification they need by September 1. “Surely nobody wants production outages,” the VDA argued. “They will harm Germany in particular.”

Carmakers complain that they have had to wait too long for all the information they need from the authorities, including things like the so-called “conformity factor.” This dictates how big a difference there can be between tests in the laboratory and on the road. For example, some of the required data for direct-injection petrol engines was decided in July 2017, the VDA argues. Adjustments like that usually take about three years to develop and get onto production lines, it notes. It would have been better to extend the deadline to September 2019, it adds. Other experts suggest EU authorities should allow carmakers a transition period of six months after September.

But that is unlikely. “The car manufacturers have known for years that the new systems for WLTP and RDE were coming,” a spokesperson for the European Commission said, referring also to Real Driving Emissions testing. “Instead of continuing to balk at this, the auto industry would be better off investing their energy into meeting these deadlines.”

Among independent testing agents, word is that the auto industry underestimated the challenge. And other factors are at work. Stefan Bratzel, a car expert with the University of Bergisch Gladbach, said that politicians have been under pressure to enforce new rules on emissions and that VW has been particularly badly affected because it’s bigger.

In some ways this is also an unfortunate irony for the world’s biggest car maker. The new, tougher and more realistic WLTP regulations have come partially as a result of the Dieselgate affair, Mr. Bratzel said. “The auto industry is suffering from a loss of credibility. The WLTP procedures are supposed to bring back new trust,” he explained. “[German] politicians – and in the case of WLTP, the EU Commission too – are under pressure. They do not want to be accused of doing too little and being tricked.” The WLTP train has left the station, he concluded, “and it can’t be stopped now.”

Stefan Menzel is the managing editor of Handelsblatt’s website and closely follows the car industry. Markus Fasse is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Munich and Till Hoppe is a Brussels correspondent. To contact the authors: fasse@handelsblatt.com, menzel@handelsblatt.com, hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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