It is time for car makers to clean up their act
Is the solution to inaccurate fuel consumption and emission figures more stringent testing?
Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30
As the latest automotive industry scandal deepens with the Japanese car company Mitsubishi admitting to falsifying fuel consumption data for decades and research from the UK concluding that none of Britain's most popular diesel cars meet the legal limits for nitrogen oxide emissions, it seems that inaccurate information from car makers is not limited to Volkswagen and it could be more widespread.
Meanwhile Daimler, owner of the Mercedes-Benz brand, said it had begun an internal investigation into its diesel emissions testing while France's Peugeot and Renault were raided by anti-fraud officials as part of ongoing investigations on pollutants in the car industry.
These revelations continue to dent the reputation of the industry and call into question all official performance figures from emissions to fuel consumption.
Given that emission levels of nitrous oxide directly impact on our health and CO2 emissions and fuel consumption our pockets, how can cars sold in Europe have such misleading information?
In short, the car makers are not breaking any laws - the only legal requirement they have is to pass a laboratory based test on emissions. What they do in the real world is not under legal scrutiny, not yet anyway.
All new cars sold in Europe are subject to the outdated New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test but as the gulf between what can be achieved in reality and the results from ideal laboratory conditions widens, it is clear that car makers can ensure that their test vehicles are optimised in ways that their showroom counterparts could never achieve on the road.
Spare wheels and wing mirrors are routinely removed while cracks around doors and gaps can be taped to minimize air resistance, and even the alternator disconnected to improve fuel consumption. In addition, it is the car manufacturers that are paying the organisations who undertake and certify the tests.
The EU has agreed to introduce a real-world testing element next year which would mean that new cars will have to be tested both in the laboratory and on the road.
So it's good news for the motorist with new stringent rules on the way?
Well, not exactly. The EU legislative cycle is a convoluted process with over 30 separate significant decision points to be cleared before a proposal can become part of European law and implemented in each member state.
The process itself is heavily weighted towards compromise to accommodate the competing and varying interests of member states, some with large automotive industries, so it is likely that proposals may well end up being watered down or will require a significant grace period.
It also remains to be seen just how easy it will be to represent real-world driving and how feasible it will be to replicate the test as results will vary depending on driving style, route and road conditions. But what of the cars on our roads now?
In our quest for high performance, low consumption and modest emissions, diesel was touted as the green option and became the fuel of choice in Ireland from 2008 following changes to how motor tax was calculated.
Whereas in the US nitrous oxide has been the main concern, in Europe the focus has remained firmly on CO2 as the key emission to lower, and many countries incentivised the use of diesel vehicles as they have lower CO2 emissions than petrol cars.
NOX emissions have not been a priority even though it has serious adverse effects on health. The World Health Organisation classifies diesel fumes as a cause of cancer alongside asbestos and plutonium.
It is essential that the new testing conditions reflect real-world data and that car buyers can make informed decisions on their priorities.
The new rules will be a first step toward correcting the discrepancy between what is happening on the road and what is officially quoted, but the future aim must be to make vehicles that cut emissions rather than simply fudging the figures.