No Cheating Needed. Europe's Lax Laws Make Diesel Tests a Snap

Gilbert: VW Scandal Is Libor on Four Wheels
  • Automakers sometimes strip 300 pounds from cars before testing
  • "This cynical chicanery must end," says an EU lawmaker

In Europe, automakers don’t need illegal software to sell cars dirtier than their lab tests show. There are plenty of legal ways to massage results.

After Volkswagen AG was caught cheating on U.S. diesel emissions tests by tweaking its software, European regulators and politicians have been rethinking their own less-stringent testing programs.

The European Union allows manufacturers to optimize results with tactics such as stripping the car of excess weight or removing the air conditioner, according to Tuev Sued, a German company that performs tests for carmakers. Such strategies have contributed to a widening gap between reported results for diesels and the pollution that really comes out of their tailpipes, according to Lucia Caudet, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the regulatory arm of the EU.

“Emissions of diesel vehicles measured on the road may in reality substantially, without any wrongdoing, exceed nitrogen oxides measured” in the lab, Caudet said in an e-mail.

Until Volkswagen admitted that it cheated on emissions control software in millions of vehicles -- which led to the resignation Wednesday of Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn -- debate about boosting the accuracy of tests played out mostly among Brussels bureaucrats, air quality activists and carmakers. Though Europe next year will introduce what officials say will be tougher road tests -- today’s tests are carried out only in labs -- automakers won’t have to meet their requirements until mid-2017.

Germany wants to speed up that timeline, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said, adding that the government is “aghast” at Volkswagen’s actions.

’Cynical Chicanery’

The European Parliament is pushing for a greater say on testing. The assembly’s environment committee on Wednesday backed a measure that would increase political scrutiny of the tests, which are currently addressed at a more technical level by commission and national experts. The measure’s fate will depend on negotiations between representatives of the parliament and national governments, a process that can take months.

“By gaming the test procedure for vehicle emissions, carmakers have kept cars on the road that are multiple factors over the legal pollution limits,” Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament from the Green party, said in a statement. “This cynical chicanery must end.”

In light of the Volkswagen scandal, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association on Wednesday said it wants the road tests to be introduced as soon as possible, to prove the rest of the industry is following the rules.

Emissions measured in road tests were about seven times higher than European limits, according to a study published last October by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The group, whose tipoff led to the Volkswagen investigation, analyzed emissions in 15 new diesel cars -- 12 certified to the European standard and three U.S. vehicles. Data from two VWs intended to be sold in the U.S. was turned over to regulators there, who conducted their own tests and confronted the company.

Europe may not have pursued emissions discrepancies as vigorously as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board simply because it doesn’t have a regulator with the same clout, said Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager of advocacy group Transport & Environment.

“This VW case is the tip of the iceberg,” Archer said. “Once the full scale of the use of defeat devices is known, it will become politically essential to act to strengthen the European testing system.”

’Golden Samples’

Europe’s diesel emission levels are already higher than what’s allowed in the U.S. The cars that are tested are called “golden samples” and differ greatly from the vehicles consumers might buy, said Vincenzo Luca, a spokesman for Tuev Sued, the German testing company. After manufacturers strip out various components, the cars typically weigh 100 kg (220 lb) to 150 kg less than production models.

“Every legal possibility to reduce emissions is exploited,” Luca said. “We test within the limits of EU law.”

Beyond the visible differences from production vehicles, automakers usually engineer the exhaust systems on test cars to minimize emissions at the specific speeds and temperatures established as benchmarks for the lab tests, Max Warburton, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd., wrote in a note on Tuesday. For now, that remains legal, but regulators may soon “climb all over” carmakers, he wrote, and "speed up the introduction of much tougher tests."

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