23 Sep 2015

Volkswagen scandal: is this the tip of the iceberg?

VW could be forced to pay billions in fines for cheating emissions tests – and campaigners are warning that other car manufacturers could be involved.

The German car manufacturer confessed to rigging the emissions tests of diesel powered vehicles in the United States. So-called “defeat devices” were installed into vehicles, meaning a car could detect when it was being tested and change the performance accordingly to improve results, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As a result the true emissions levels, as much as 40 times higher than the US legal limit, were hidden. The EPA’s findings cover 482,000 cars in the US only, including VW-manufactured Audi A3, and other VW brands Passat, Beetle, Golf and Jetta.

‘We totally screwed up’

VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide have been fitted with the “defeat device”, dating as far back as 2009. Some cars could now be recalled in other countries.

Head of the VW US business Michael Horn said “we totally screwed up” by rigging the emissions tests and group chief executive Martin Winterkorn has resigned, saying “Volkswagen needs a fresh start”.

The car maker now faces a criminal investigation in the US and further probes in countries including Germany, France and South Korea.

While this is the biggest scandal Volkswagen’s 78-year-old history, questions are being raised as to whether this is an industry wide problem and what other hidden issues there may be.

Emissions testing

Emissions testing is regulated differently in Europe and the United States. Before passengers car types can be approved for sale in the European Unions they must meet certain standards for exhaust emissions of air quality pollutants.

As of this month, all new cars sold must meet the Euro 6 standards for exhaust emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (THC and NMHC) and particulate matter (PM), which are various pollutants.

NOx is a harmful pollutant and linked to respiratory problems such as asthma and airway inflammation. EPA say NOx exposure time ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours is enough impact health.

The new Euro 6 regulation sets different standards for petrol and for diesel, with a dramatic drop in the NOx emissions levels for diesel cars. Now, cars are limited to produce a maximum of 80mg/km, down from 180mg/km – the previous requirement for 2009 Euro 5 regulation.

In the US, the rules are more stringent and EPA has set air quality standards for six common pollutants, including NOx, under the 1990 Clean Air Act. Exhaust emission standards operate on a tier structure at a national level, also combining a Greenhouse gas air pollution score and the vehicle model weight.

Despite this, lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E) claim car manufactures have been manipulating the test levels of emissions, producing a gap in official figures advertised and ‘real-world’ performance figures.

In a 2014 report, T&E said: “The gap between test results and real world performance has become a chasm increasing from 8 per cent in 2001to 31 per cent in 2013 for private motorists and without action is likely to continue to grow to over 50 per cent by 2020”.

It suggested car manufactures fitted technology to the car to “achieve far lower emissions in the test than on the road”.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Now, one year on from the report and in light of the VW scandal, Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager of Transport & Environment said: “In Europe the testing system is obsolete and not fit for purpose. Carmakers know how to manipulate tests to make their vehicles appear cleaner than they actually are on the road while, as we’ve seen in the VW case, defeat devices are used to cheat the test.”

Speaking to Channel 4 News he said: “Volkswagen’s admission of cheating is just the tip of the iceberg and there could be a lot more companies embroiled in this. Tens of millions of cars have been sold since 2009, and with exactly the same diesel technology being used in Europe as in the US, this could not be an isolated case.”

However, the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders believes the scandal is not an industry wide problem.

“The UK automotive industry understands the concerns consumers may have following the actions of one manufacturer in regard to emissions testing and the subsequent decision to recall a large number of its cars. This is, however, an issue affecting just one company and there is no evidence to suggest that any other company is involved, let alone that this is an industry-wide issue,” it said in a statement.

The motoring group also recognised that”“the current test method for cars is out of date”.

Miles Per Gallon

It’s not just emissions figures that could mislead consumers. Fewer than one in 50 cars match the manufacture’s claims on the miles per gallon (mpg), according to research from Consumer group Which?

The consumer watchdog tested 200 new cars between 2013 and 2014 and found only three had accurate official fuel usage figures.

EU regulations test official mpg figures by the New European Driving Cycle, which is a series of tests to represent typical car usage. However, the foundation of the test were created in the 1970s and have not been updated since 1997 – not taking into account modern engine technology or real-world driving conditions.

Jim Holder, Editorial Director at What Car? and Autocar said: “Car makers test emissions under laboratory conditions, again as required by EU regulations. However, we know that mpg figures officially quoted by car makers as a result of these lab tests are very different to mpg figures that can be achieved in the real world…so there is a need for a change in the way those official figures are calculated, in our view.”

The gap is also widening between official mpg and the “true” mpg. In 2001 the difference was at just 8 per cent compared to 2012 when the gap reached 21 per cent, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The issue of recognising a more accurate mpg could become more prominent as the recent scandal has thrown the car industry under the spotlight.

Mr Holder said: “[The scandal] has undoubtedly tarnished the reputation not only of VW but of the car industry as a whole. The microscope will be on the motor industry to be whiter than white and it will be down to the car makers, particularly VW, to work on restoring faith in their reputations.”