France’s consumer protection agency has accused Renault of having implemented “fraudulent strategies” for more than 25 years to cheat emissions tests of 1 million diesel cars, according to a one-year investigation by French media.
The fresh allegations, a step up from a damning report by the French environment ministry last year, suggest the country’s biggest carmaker could face its own diesel emissions scandal, a year and a half after the revelations roiled Germany’s Volkswagen. Renault has categorically denied the allegations.
The investigation by France’s DGCCRF, the country’s anti-fraud and consumer protection authority, found that the automaker had “used a strategy aimed at distorting the results of anti-pollution tests” for more than 25 years, according to a report published Wednesday in the French daily Libération.
It’s not the first time Renault and other France-based manufacturers have been implicated for alleged irregularities in the emissions of its cars. An independent commission of the environment ministry last year found several French auto models emitted more pollutants on the road than during testing, and accused the industry of installing cheat devices and forcing recalls at Renault and others.
It’s the anti-fraud agency’s report, however, that looked into specifically illegal activity and prompted the Paris prosecutor’s office to open a judicial inquiry into Renault on January 12. Renault could potentially face a criminal prosecution and fines as a result.
The newspaper quoted excerpts of the agency’s final report, which was written last November and handed to prosecutors at the end of an 11-month probe. It said “the entire chain of management,” all the way up to Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, may have been involved in the suspected fraud.
A former Renault employee said that some practices date back to 1990.
Thierry Bolloré, Renault’s vice president in charge of competitiveness, categorically denied the accusations. “Renault doesn’t cheat,” the company’s second-in-command told French news agency AFP. Mr. Bolloré said all of Renault’s certified vehicles complied with legal standards.
The anti-fraud agency, a department of France’s ministry for economic affairs, in its report said it suspects the world’s 10th-largest automaker of having used software programmed to artificially comply with European regulations on pollution. The report focused on recent models but the agency, whose investigation relied heavily on the testimony of a former employee, said some practices dated back to 1990.
“Several vehicles were equipped with cycle detection devices” so the car could identify whether it was being tested, the agency’s report said, according to Libération. The engine then adjusted how it operated, lowering its output of polluting gases, according to a former technician who left the group in 1997. The first generation of Renault Clio cars, released in 1990, was the first to contain this software, according to this former employee.
The accusations echo those directed against Volkswagen, which admitted to installing software to cheat nitrogen oxide emissions tests in 11 million cars. But the French agency went further by accusing Renault of manipulating the emissions levels of both nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide.
After Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal emerged in fall 2015, the French government commissioned its own investigations. The environment ministry launched an independent commission soon after, tasked with investigating the emissions levels of all car brands sold in France, under on-road driving conditions. Then, in January 2016, the anti-fraud authority launched its own probe, looking at whether consumer protection laws had been broken.
The agency reported that some Renault cars emitted significantly different amounts of pollutant under lab conditions and on the road. This fact led it to suspect they could be “fitted with a fraudulent device,” to modify the engine’s operation and to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide under specific conditions. One model exceeded the legal emissions level for carbon dioxide by 377 percent.
According to a calculation by France’s economics ministry, up to 900,000 vehicles fitted with illegal software might have been certified and sold in France, resulting in €16.8 billion, or $18 billion, in sales for Renault.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org