Better hold your breath.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Europe Chokes on Emissions Testing

Edward Niedermeyer, an auto-industry analyst, is the co-founder of Daily Kanban and the former editor of the blog The Truth About Cars.
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The Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal might have started in the U.S., but it's becoming clear that the controversy has opened far deeper wounds in Europe. Though the European Union is known for its strict vehicle carbon dioxide emissions standards, the Volkswagen ordeal -- which centers around nitrogen oxides (NOx), a hazardous type of diesel pollutant -- has revealed profound weaknesses in the EU’s entire regulatory system. With millions of diesel vehicles on the road across Europe, the stakes are high -- and environmental groups are anxious not to let this scandal go to waste.

Leading the charge against what he calls major weaknesses in regulation is Axel Friedrich, a chemist and activist who has spent the last 35 years agitating for cleaner auto emissions. Friedrich, with help from environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), says the NOx emissions testing scandal extends well beyond VW. Vehicles from General Motors's European division Opel and French automaker Renault have been tested under his guidance and found wanting: Opel's Zafira 1.6 CDTi emitted up to 17 times the legally allowed levels of NOx in DUH tests, and Renault's Espace 1.6 dCi exceeded the Euro 6 level by as much as 25 times. 

Friedrich argues that these results -- along with those from a number of other automakers that he says DUH will reveal in the coming weeks -- is mounting proof that VW's scandal is just the tip of a massive iceberg. Behind Europe's reputation for strict environmental regulation, he argues, lies a broken system. And the damage he is trying to head off is not distant and only potentially controversial, as so many emissions issues are. Rather, NOx is a carcinogen whose concentrations in Europe's urban centers are not dropping as fast as official emissions. "People need to understand that this is not a game," he told me. "People are dying."

And yet the automakers that are failing Friedrich's tests are playing legal gymnastics to defend themselves. Opel and Renault -- just as VW initially did -- say DUH's testing methods deviate from official procedure and that, when "properly" tested, their vehicles meet all relevant regulations. But this defense actually makes Friedrich and DUH's point for them: Official test procedures are so specific that automakers can program their vehicles in myriad ways to recognize testing conditions and perform better in the tests than they do in the real world. The fact that NOx emissions rise above legal levels as soon as official testing conditions are abandoned shows that automakers essentially teach to the test, making emissions monitoring tools nearly irrelevant. By focusing on a merely legal approach to compliance, Friedrich says, regulators and automakers alike are hiding the problem of real-world NOx emissions from the public, whose health it directly affects.

The reaction from European regulators and lawmakers to allegations of cheating has revealed how deep the problems go. The initial regulatory upgrade formulated by the European Parliament in response to the VW scandal is headed for failure because it would still allow vehicles to emit up to twice the legal limit of NOx. German regulators are pressuring the testing firms tasked with monitoring compliance to explain how the problems were not caught sooner; the testing firms have responded by arguing that the government's protection of auto industry trade secrets prevents them from accessing vehicle software codes in order to find the precise "defeat devices." 

Friedrich seems almost bemused by this chaotic response, arguing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't need access to VW's engine codes to discover that the automaker was cheating emissions tests. "I have no interest in the code," he said. "It's not important. If [the exhaust] is dirty, it's dirty."

Rather than playing whack-a-mole with each of the specific devices and techniques he finds in his testing, Friedrich's strategy is to leverage local environmental zones to put pressure on automakers, regulators and consumers. By suing German cities for failing to live up to their local clean-air plans, Friedrich and the DUH are hoping to trigger European Commission fines, force upgrades to bus and taxi fleets, and even ban noncompliant vehicles from city centers. If local governments have to pay for noncompliance and if consumers aren't able to drive new cars into city centers, Friedrich believes they will join the drive toward broader regulatory change.

After decades of battles over clean air, Friedrich and DUH have landed on a strategy that aims to avoid legal battles with the auto industry over emissions compliance in order to focus the public’s attention on real-world pollution levels. "Delenda carthago," he said. "If conditions on the ground aren't improving, the whole system isn't delivering."

Overhauling the regulatory system to eliminate cheating won't be easy, but with local lawsuits moving forward and a steady drumbeat of new test results being planned, Friedrich says public awareness is growing and the industry is starting to feel the heat. With regulators around the world grappling with the thorny problems of emissions testing in the wake of VW's shocking revelations, all eyes are on Friedrich's campaign to move pollution regulation out of the lab and into the real world it was supposed to protect all along.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Edward Niedermeyer at edward.niedermeyer@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net