Emissions Testers Hit the Road

Autos fahren am 28.09.2016 in Berlin über die Straße des 17. Juni. Foto: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Germany has yet to take an official position on plans to give the E.U. final say on emissions tesing. But the country's transport minister has already said a new European authority was unnecessary.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The European Union wants to take overall control of emissions testing on diesel vehicles, suspecting national authorities have been too soft on the auto industry.

  • Facts


    • VW last year admitted it manipulated software to cheat emissions tests in some 11 million diesel cars worldwide. The scandal has since broadened to include many other companies, impacting Audi and Bosch.
    • The European Union is looking to strengthen its testing regime with improved technology, and giving its own scientists the final say on vehicle compliance.
    • Explicitly testing the car industry will present a substantial new challenge for the JRC, meaning scientists could easily become entangled in politics.
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Alois Krasenbrink’s roots may be in Western Germany, but his life’s work is in Northern Italy, at the Joint Research Center (JRC) in the town of Ispra. The European Union’s science hub is where it tests exhaust emissions on diesel-engined vehicles. When Mr. Krasenbrink wrote his doctorate on the subject, it was an obscure corner of a little-known field. But in the last two years, it has become political dynamite.

Mr. Krasenbrink and the 60 people working under him have to ensure diesel vehicles made by Europe’s car manufacturers emit no more pollution than the rules allow. Soon, the JRC may become a pan-European authority, with his team supervising the supervisors of Europe. This promises to be a highly charged task.

Until now, national authorities have had the final say on new vehicles on Europe’s roads. But the European commissioner for industry, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, a former Polish deputy prime minister, wants to give that power to a single European authority. Mr. Krasenbrink’s team will have the job of testing vehicle emissions and if it comes to it, the commission will use the JRC’s judgments to impose recalls and penalties on manufacturers.

Hardly anyone would claim the current system is working well. It was not Europe but the American Environmental Protection Agency that blew the lid on Volkswagen’s illegal manipulation of emissions testing.

None of this is yet certain. Not all countries are keen to give up control.

“Some member states are refusing any stronger role for the commission,” said one well-informed E.U. diplomat. The biggest opponents of Ms. Bieńkowska’s proposals are countries with important car industries. The German government has no official position as of yet, but in January, the country’s transport minister Alexander Dobrindt pointedly remarked,“We do not need a new European authority in this area.”

Hardly anyone would claim the current system is working well. It was not Europe but the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that blew the lid on Volkswagen’s illegal manipulation of emissions testing. Independent tests went on to reveal that other manufacturers’ diesel engines were also pumping out toxins at four to seven times the legal limit.

The suspicion is that national authorities may have discreetly overlooked elevated diesel emissions from domestic car manufacturers. Of course they strongly deny the suggestion. But in Germany, the doubt has led to the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry. A committee of the European Parliament is also looking into it.

In search of better data, Mr. Krasenbrink and his team have developed a new testing method, meant to eliminate any tricks or rigging of data. PEMS, or Portable Emissions Measurement System, is explicitly designed to test real-world, on-road emissions. The method goes far beyond the lab tests that manufacturers found so easy to tamper with.

The core of the new technology is an auxiliary exhaust system, attached to the car under investigation. The mass of pipes and wires attached to the car would horrify petrolheads but it captures better data than anything that came before. Exhaust fumes are diverted through a bulky device in the car’s trunk. Its sensors measure concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particles. One tester drives the car, while a second sits in the passenger seat and checks the values on a laptop. The team can drive where ever they like, as long as they stick to guidelines on speeds and gradients.

From September 2017, this technology must be used to pass E.U. environmental requirements. However, national authorities will still do the bulk of the testing. Mr. Krasenbrink and his colleagues will provide an “additional layer of checks,” as JRC director Vladimir Šucha puts it. Mr. Krasenbrink’s team will also be able to perform random tests on any model they want.

Testing 150 to 200 vehicles a year — far more than today — will present a substantial new challenge for the JRC. Brussels is making funds available to hire 20 to 25 new scientists but the problems will not just be technical. The JRC group will explicitly be policing the car industry, which will involve new dimensions of political difficulty. The men in white coats could easily become entangled in political wrangling with the commission, member states and industry.

Giovanni De Santi, a senior JRC manager with decades of experience, admits there will be culture shock. “In the way we think, we are scientists and scholars,” he said. Officially approving new vehicle types will be “a totally different kind of work.”

In short, the scientists will have to become more suspicious than in the past. As early as 2010, JRC researchers had clear indications that lab-tested diesel emissions were giving unrealistic results. But they say it never occurred to them to ask if manufacturers were systemically manipulating the tests. Instead, they focused on improving technology: PEMS was the result.

And they will need more than sharpened skepticism to take on governments and influential manufacturers. “We need a very clear political mandate,” said Mr. De Santi. But whether they will get it remains unclear. Many states are unwilling to give up regulatory powers over a crucial industrial sector.

National authorities are suspected of discreetly overlooking elevated diesel emissions from domestic car manufacturers.

States’ protective instincts were highlighted toward the end of last year. In order to give car manufacturers some years to get their houses in order, a number of governments, including France, Italy and the Czech Republic, forced a long delay in imposing new standards on nitrogen oxides in diesel fumes.

Political debates on the new supervisory structures will be just as hard-fought, and may take many months to complete. For its part, the E.U. commission is making clear it will not easily back down. Ms. Bieńkowska is already threatening the German and other governments with legal proceedings over their failure to act decisively against cheating manufacturers.

On these questions, Mr. Krasenbrink maintains a diplomatic silence. For now, his world is the laboratory, not the negotiating table. But he soon may find himself at both.


Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: hoppe@handelsblatt.com.

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