Events rocking the world: Dieselgate, CAR+ November 2015

Published: 15 October 2015

► The dieselgate saga continues
► An event that prompted regime change
► Scandal threatens combustion engine 

The diesel emissions scandal is pitting the people vs the People’s Car-maker. Social media is buzzing with opinions on the Volkswagen brand’s toxicity: who wouldn’t be outraged by the contempt of VW engineers flouting laws designed to protect people’s health, for commercial advantage? And the fallout is spreading beyond VW, putting the gutless European emissions test under the spotlight, and even bringing the diesel engine’s future into question. 

VW will pay an exorbitant price for its deception: manufacturing and installing software that ran two distinct diesel operating cycles, one for the laboratory to ‘defeat’ emissions tests, and one for the road. The on-road programme reduced the effectiveness of the exhaust emissions control system, increasing NOx pollution to 10-40 times the permissible US limit. 

In the first few days of the crisis, €20 billion was wiped off VW’s stock value. Then there’s the cost of recalling and reprogramming 482,000 US cars, the cost of fighting class actions, and the fine: $7.4bn worst case scenario, estimate analysts Bernstein. Plus the reputational damage, caused by such a public shaming and inconveniencing consumers, who may find the driveability or economy of their reprogrammed cars suffer (though VW says it’s striving to avoid this). It’s a massive blow for Volkswagen, which was already struggling to meet its North American growth targets.

The shockwave hits Europe

The fallout has been brutal in Wolfsburg too: Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen CEO for eight years, resigned within days of the scandal breaking. He’s been replaced by Porsche CEO Matthias Müller. The company has also suspended an unspecified number of engineers, as it seeks to identify those responsible for criminal activities. 

The defeat device affects 11m vehicles worldwide, more cars than Toyota recalled when it investigated unintended acceleration in 2010. Cars running the EA189 engine family of 2.0-, 1.6- and 1.2-litre TDIs (mostly last generation Golf, Passat and Tiguan) need a software upgrade; Audi, Seat and Skoda TDIs are also affected, as are some VW vans. In the UK, 1.2m vehicles will need remedial work. And what of the brand damage here? Here’s one example: Glass’s says diesel Volkswagens’ used values fell 0.2% in September, while rivals’ climbed 2.8% – a 3% swing. 

Dieselgate also calls into question the impotent NEDC European testing cycle, which dates back to the ’70s. And as with the corruption charges against football’s governing body FIFA, it has taken an American investigation to trigger action on a European failing. 

Today’s 6.8-mile test on a rolling road, which an insider described to CAR in 2013 as a ‘fairly lame set of tootling about most drivers would struggle to replicate’, is embarrassingly redundant. In America, independent agencies source cars from the production line and test them more exactingly on NOx: the US limit is 0.03g/km, for example, compared with 0.08g/km to meet the latest Euro-6 diesel standard. 

And then there’s the massive gap between the NEDC test figures and real-world fuel economy; lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E) claims this has widened to a staggering 40%. There’s repeated anecdotal evidence that manufacturers are allowed to ‘optimise’ their pre-production test cars – improving tyre rolling resistance, using special lubricants, taping up shutlines, disconnecting the alternator – something disputed by UK trade body, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). But the car makers do commission and pay for the tests: they are not independent.

‘The European system of testing cars to measure fuel economy and CO2 emissions is utterly discredited,’ said Greg Archer of Transport & Environment. ‘The Volkswagen scandal was just the tip of the iceberg; what lies beneath is widespread abuse of testing rules by car makers.’

Tougher EU testing – but when?

The EU and Japan are implementing a new WLTP test procedure. It’ll last 30 minutes, more than a third longer than the NEDC test, and its acceleration levels, average speed and stop-start punctuations are claimed to be far more representative of on-road driving. Hybrids won’t run fully-charged, which should rein in some of their preposterous, three-figure economy claims. Experts say up to 20% more fuel will be consumed than on the NEDC cycle; compliancy for NOx, particulate matter and carbon monoxide will continue to be tested. Lobbyists, some politicians and the SMMT are backing additional on-road tailpipe checks, the RDE test.  

But when will the new WLTP test be implemented? Discussions started back in 2007, with the UN adopting the procedure last year. But it’s now being picked over in European Union technical discussions behind closed doors. Despite the SMMT publicly welcoming a ‘new emissions test that is more representative of on-road conditions,’ T&E alleges that member states with strong car industries – Germany, France, Italy and the UK – are trying to soften the target of 95g/km by 2021. A 10g/km leeway to take into account the new test’s lower atmospheric temperatures, which will impact engine efficiency, will be included for starters. The wrangling means the test won’t become EU law until 2017, the same year RDE is tipped for introduction.  

Car makers have been complaining about the economic viability of engineering diesels to pass toughening regulations on NOx. And they’ll fear a shift away from diesel, which accounts for 50% of EU car sales. Its inherent efficiency advantage helps tackle global warming – and manufacturers meet their CO2 obligations.

Even before Dieselgate, Parisian officials were criticising the fuel’s local air quality impact, and London will financially penalise Euro-5 diesels wanting to enter its 2020 Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The SMMT continues to hit back against the demonisation of diesel, but VW’s actions have brought the fuel into disrepute. 

‘With hydrocarbons, we hit the limit of physics several years ago,’ says Elon Musk of electric car maker Tesla. ‘Sitting in city traffic, your air intake is by the car in front’s exhaust pipe: does that make any sense? I’m hopeful the result of this is to push the big car companies to accelerate their plans for zero-emission vehicles.’

Max Warburton of analysts Bernstein is more succinct. ‘Does this signal the end for diesel?’ he asks. ‘Yes, it probably does.’ 

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine

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