New test results published today showed that dozens of diesel cars from multiple manufacturers fail to meet specified European emission targets. Vehicles from Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, Volvo, and Jeep were all tested in real-world conditions — and all of them found severely wanting. The average Mercedes Benz produced at least 2.2x more NOx than the official Euro-5 level and 5x more than the ecological Euro-6 emission standard allows. Honda’s diesels emitted between 2.6x and 6x more NOx than allowed.
Mazda and Mitsubishi both failed the test as well. Out of 50 vehicles that supposedly met Euro-6 levels and 150 Euro-5 diesels, just five vehicles out of more than 200 emitted real-world particulate levels that matched their in-house lab tests. The difference between these manufacturers and VW, thus far, is that none of these other companies stand accused of using a so-called “defeat device” to hide their failures. They didn’t need to.
The New European Driving Cycle
In order to pass EU emissions targets, vehicles are tested in the New European Driving Cycle test (NEDC). This driving cycle benchmark, created in 1997, has been heavily criticized for its failure to conform to any real-world scenario. The test is conducted with all ancillary loads turned off, including air conditioning, heat, lights, defrosters. It’s not clear if headlights are disabled (and this would be significant, since European countries frequently mandate daytime running lights and/or full headlights at all times).
Regardless, the NEDC has been heavily criticized for its reliance on low acceleration, frequent idling, and constant-speed cruising. The original version of the test dates to the 1970s. Results do not include sustained motorway driving, allow the manufacturer to reduce speed by 1.2mph (thereby saving fuel), allow for the removal of both roof rails and passenger door mirrors (changing the aerodynamic profile of the car and saving weight), allows for overinflated tire pressures to reduce rolling resistance, allows companies to self-test with no oversight committee in place to check results, and finally allows car companies to reduce their results by 4% — just because.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a new problem, whatever politicians might find it expedient to say. A report from back in 2006 pointed out that while the NEDC standard had been steadily getting more strict, actual reductions in NOx emissions measured in real-world tests showed virtually no improvement. When this report was written, it showed that the then-new Euro-4 standard was only very slightly better than measured diesel emissions under the Euro-1 standard — which had been enacted a full 13 years earlier.
The US typically perceived Europe as having stronger consumer protections and tougher restrictions on pollution, but this is as clear a case of regulatory capture as you could ask for. The EU’s actual emissions and air quality are far in excess of what the law says because an obsolete and abused driving test has been kept as a gift to the automakers themselves. When the Guardian reached out to automakers to comment on the discrepancy between their real-world test results and the EU standard, virtually every single manufacturer stressed how important it was for them to comply with regulations. Mitsubishi had the audacity to note that “The NEDC was never intended to represent real-world driving.”
Governments cannot appropriately regulate pollution or air quality if the regulations are written as hand-outs and rampant cheating and fraud go unchecked. What this demonstrates, in aggregate, is that EU citizens have been collectively sold a bill of goods, with vehicles that pretend to comply with air quality standards they don’t actually meet and have no intention of abiding by. Since this is all legal under the current framework, there’s very little chance that any of these other companies will face punishment or censure.
Instead, it’ll be VW and VW alone that faces the backlash on this — for having the audacity to push an utterly broken system just a little farther and install a “defeat device.” I’m not condoning VW’s lying to customers, but it’s not hard to see why the company thought it could get away with this. EU lawmakers had already been giving auto companies a free pass for years. VW, meanwhile, continues trying to sell the narrative that this was all the action of a few rogue engineers, but thus far, Congress isn’t buying it.
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