Have carmakers learnt from Dieselgate?

The 2015 revelations sent shockwaves around the world: Volkswagen, the emblematic German carmaker had been caught cheating in its diesel emissions tests. In fact, its cars were emitting harmful nitrogen oxide emissions that were way over the EU limits. The news, three years ago, had many effects: it made a huge dent in VW’s reputation; it dealt a body blow to diesel as a fuel; and it forced all carmakers to speed up their investments into alternatives to fossil fuels.

Today, the car industry looks a lot more modern than before. They had been cutting their emissions already thanks to climate change regulations, but the so-called Dieselgate scandal made them move much faster.

VW has recovered some of its reputation: it has apologised, replaced its top executives, paid billions in fines (in the US but – controversially – not in the EU) and committed to a new generation of electric cars.

It has also emerged that VW was far from alone in cheating: a French government report in 2016 investigated 86 different cars, and only a fifth of them were found to comply with emission laws. Indeed, the International Council on Clean Transportation says that between 2001 and 2013, the gap in CO2emissions in the lab against emissions on the road nearly quadrupled from 8% to 31%. By 2016, the gap was 42%.

After all this, carmakers might be expected now to follow the emissions tests scrupulously. But last month, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) revealed the latest tricks they are playing, this time to make their cars appear dirtier than they really are.

Why would they want to register high emissions under the EU’s new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP)? The answer lies in the way the EU has devised its CO2emissions cutting plan: the 2025 standards do not set a new grams-based target, but instead requires a 15% cut compared to carmakers’ emissions in 2021. So if the baseline is measured higher than the reality, then carmakers have a shorter gap to fill when they have to meet the emissions target. The JRC found that carmakers raised their test emissions by using a depleted battery, switching off start-stop functions and shifting gears more slowly to raise emissions.

All this shows that even if carmakers are moving, reluctantly, towards cleaner and smarter models, they are struggling all the way.

EU emissions testing is being overhauled. The new system gives the Commission powers to check cars already on the road, and it can fine carmakers up to €30,000 a car in case of non-compliance.