Let the inquiry into the Volkswagen emissions scandal begin
In 2013, John German and his Michigan team found that VW cars on the road emitted 40 times more nitrogen oxide than they emitted in the laboratory. So why did the European Commission do nothing with this information? The EU has now launched an inquiry - was this down to misplaced trust in the automotive industry, or the fault of the cosy relationship between the car makers and EU member states? It is time for the truth to come out.
Back in 2013 a German discovered that there was something dodgy with Volkswagen’s vehicle emission claims. Quite right, I hear you say, that the scandal should be uncovered by a German. Sadly it was uncovered by John German, a self-confessed ‘simple engineer from Michigan,’ working for the San Francisco-based International Council for Clean Transport (ICCT). John had asked his team to test the German car company’s emissions. When the results were returned, they made absolutely no sense.
German and his team tested and re-tested the car emissions. Each time the result came back the same. It was funny. Not funny, ha-ha, but funny, as in VW appeared to be making a claim for the emissions from their vehicles that could not be replicated in any test. The irrefutable conclusion of John German and his team was that Volkswagen cars ‘on the road’ emitted 40 times more nitrogen oxide than they emitted in the laboratory.
Standard vehicle emissions tests are conducted in a laboratory, on a treadmill. From German’s research, it became apparent that the sophisticated software hot-wired into the VW car was able to detect when vehicle was being driven on a treadmill, and apply an emission reduction protocol. However, when the car was subject to real road trials, with changing terrain and traffic, the ‘cheat device’ automatically turned off and emissions soared.
German had uncovered a consumer scandal of enormous significance. At the time of writing, Volkswagen has admitted that nearly 11 million vehicles were fitted with ‘cheat device’ software, whose sole purpose was to give a false emission reading when the car was tested under laboratory conditions.
(In an interesting aside, as an MEP I have regularly been bombarded by folks telling me that the proposed EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP in the Euro-jargon) would inevitably lead to a dumbing down of the EU’s high environmental standards to the deplorable levels found in the US. If the unfolding VW scandal is anything to go by, the EU will have to up its game to meet those across the pond. High standards unenforced are worthless.)
It seems that warning lights did flash back in 2011. The European Commission’s Joint Research Service (JRS) published a study showing that the emissions of modern diesel cars were much higher than should be. By 2013 the JRS declared:
‘Sensors and electronic components in modern light-duty vehicles are capable of ‘detecting’ the start of an emissions test in the laboratory … Some vehicle functions may only be operational in the laboratory, if a predefined test mode is activated. Detecting emissions tests is problematic from the perspective of emissions legislation, because it may enable the use of defeat devices that activate, modulate, delay, or deactivate emissions control systems with the purpose of either enhancing the effectiveness of these systems during emissions testing or reducing the effectiveness of these systems under normal vehicle operation and use.’
The JRS further noted that while such ‘defeat devices’ were generally prohibited, ‘exceptions exist […] to protect the engine against damage and to ensure safe vehicle operation,’ exceptions which, ‘leave room for interpretation and provide scope, together with the currently applied test procedure, for tailoring the emissions performance.’
In receipt of this clear warning back in 2011, and affirmed in 2013, the European Commission took no action. Why? Why did they do nothing with this telling information? A couple of answers could be advanced: a (misplaced) trust in the automotive industry and its integrity, perhaps? An absence of the necessary on-road testing facilities or concern as to their cost? Both are certainly possible explanations. How about a way too cosy relationship between the car makers and the Commission? Or between car makers and certain EU member states? Those too need be considered.
In truth the answer isn’t clear. It is for that reason that the European Parliament has set up a Committee of Inquiry into the VW Emission issue. I will sit on the committee alongside fellow UK Conservative MEPs, Julie Girling (who has done a power of work into emissions issues) and Dan Dalton (who sits on the Internal Market Committee; after all this is a distortion of the common market).
When the Committee begins its work (at present the whole shebang is delayed whilst the two biggest political groups in the Parliament wrangle over the chairmanship). The Committee will convene public hearings, call witnesses from the engineers who design the cars to the current and former CEOs who managed the company. It may even call some of the politicians who sit on the VW Board. It will examine each and every alleged misdemeanour. It will delve into the whole ‘cheat device’ technology and the ethos that underpinned it. And when the Committee is done, it will report to the full Parliament.
It is important to remember that the Parliament is not alone in its desire to find the truth. The inquiry will run alongside criminal investigation in the EU and the US. In January, the US Federal Government lodged a complaint against Volkswagen, seeking punitive fines estimated at $46 billion. The EU has no power to impose such fines and so Member States are picking up the baton. So far, German law firm Nielding & Barth have pledged to lodge proceedings in a regional court in Brunswick where the majority of VW car parts are manufactured. The suit will be filed on behalf of 66 institutional investors in Volkswagen, the details of which are still confidential.
Setting aside all the legal niceties, the prospect of serious fines, and the prospect of prison time for some, larger questions remain. What impact has the deceit had upon the health and wellbeing of those who breathe the air in our cities? And what impact has this deceit had upon our wider ambitions to arrest global warming to 2°C?
And after all is said and done, the EU must review its emissions law, not the targets (although that time too is coming) but the enforcement and the penalties. We must have confidence that when we a company claims its cars have low emissions, they actually do. And if they make a false claim, they must know that the full force of the law will fall upon them.
As the globe grapples with the challenge of climate change, we must be sure that everyone is on the same side. The Paris Climate Change accord has accelerated global ambitions, but the challenge will be tough enough without ‘cheat devices’.
So, let the work of the Committee of Inquiry into Volkswagen begin.
This article originally appeared on @capx 10 March 2015
The photograph was taken in the European Parliament with an engineer from the team who first uncovered the scandal, Vicente Franco