Monday 19 February 2018

10 questions we asked the Volkswagen scam buster

A Greenpeace activist adds a pointed message to a Volkswagen sign at the company's plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, Photo: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
A Greenpeace activist adds a pointed message to a Volkswagen sign at the company's plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, Photo: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
The Volkswagen logo sits atop the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg.
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

Independent Motoring Editor pulled off a major coup this week in interviewing the man at the centre of the Volkswagen saga, John German. Mr German will forever be remembered for his role, with Peter Mock, in discovering that Volkswagen were cheating regulators on the amounts of noxious gases some of their diesel cars were emitting.

Here is the full text of the world exclusive Q&A interview in which Mr German outlines the problems that lie ahead and what he feel needs to be done urgently.

EDDIE CUNNINGHAM: Could we have another Volkswagen-type scandal do you think? And why/why not?

JOHN GERMAN: "Could" - yes, at least in Europe. Given the history in the US of manufacturers being caught with defeat devices, such as the late-1990s when heavy-duty engine manufacturers were caught with defeat devices and the remedies and fines totalled about a billion dollars, I'd be amazed if anyone else in the US is stupid enough to be using a defeat device. Of course I said this before the VW scandal. Europe is different because the chances of getting caught in Europe are far less. We don't know yet if other manufacturers are also using defeat devices, but given the very high real world NOx emissions from some diesel cars, it is possible.

EC: Do you suspect that there could be even more sophisticated software out there that so far gone undetected? Or can it be developed?

JG: Yes, the software can become even more sophisticated. Detecting a defeat device by examining software is extremely difficult and will get more difficult. But there is no point in installing defeat device software if it doesn't affect what happens in the real world. Thus, EPA and CARB didn't even try to look at the software, they looked at the results in the real world. Unless someone can figure out how to detect if a portable emission measurement system (PEMS) has been installed, the results of the most sophisticated software on emissions and emission control system (EGR rate, fuel injection timing, urea injection) will still be detected.

EC:  Why do you think carmakers continue with current fuel consumption testing practices when they know that consumers don’t believe them?

JG: I can't answer that. In the US, public complaints about inaccurate fuel economy label values led to EPA establishing adjustment factors for fuel economy labels. The first adjustments took place starting in 1985, 30 years ago, and reduced the city test results by 10% and the highway test results by 22%. EPA updated the fuel economy label adjustments in 2007 to make them more accurate, using a formula based upon the test results from the city test, highway test, cold temperature test, air conditioning test, and high speed/acceleration test. I do not know why Europe has not done something similar. (Note that the adjustments for fuel economy labels in the US are NOT used for CO2/CAFE standard compliance, which continue to use the unadjusted city and highway test results.)

EC: So many countries now link taxation to emissions. Should consumers be made to realise they are partially complicit in wishing to keep emissions – and therefore taxes – at contrived/low levels?

JG: An excellent question, but outside my area of expertise.

EC: What changes in emission testing do you see as being critical for Europe, and indeed globally, over the next five years?

JG: The most critical change needed globally, including Europe, is effective enforcement. The two primary needs, as outline in our report, are compliance testing of in-use vehicles and clear legal authority to issue fines and recalls if the requirements are not being met. Better test procedures, such as the WLTP and the RDE (real driving emissions) will help, but they do not address the primary problems. Note that RDE could be an effective enforcement tool if its use were extended to testing in-use vehicles. But currently RDE testing is only for pre-production "golden" vehicles.

EC: What are the Top Three changes in emissions testing do you believe are needed to bridge the gap between official and real-world?

JG: 1) Test in-use vehicles, to ensure vehicles are operating as designed and to ensure that the emission control systems are durable. Note that this can be done effectively with laboratory testing, as demonstrated in the US.

2) Establish clear legal authority for agencies to investigate noncompliance and enforce remedies, such as fines and recalls.

3) Governments need to establish their own, independent testing facilities and do confirmatory testing of about 10% of the manufacturers’ tests, with repercussions if the manufacturers’ tests are statistically different.

EC: What is the greatest challenge for policy makers, do you think?

JG: In Europe, the greatest challenge is that standards (are) set at the EU level, but enforcement is done at the country level, with all countries agreeing to accept certification in any other country. This leads to a situation where no agency has legal authority to do enforcement. It's a political problem. For example, China issued a new environmental law a few months ago that established clear legal authority for effective enforcement, something that Europe has not been able to do.

EC: Would it help if more health/consumer organisations either coalesced or highlighted how Europeans, especially, are at greater risk from NOx emissions because higher levels are legally permitted?

JG: I do think the health impacts of the excessive diesel NOx have not gotten enough attention. This is not just the direct health impacts from NOx, but also the indirect impacts - NOx is a major contributor to ozone formation and it also leads to formation of secondary nitrate particulate emissions.

EC: What areas are you currently examining/studying?

JG: In addition to the above, we are also working on onboard diagnostic systems (OBD). These are important to help keep vehicles operating properly in the real world.

EC: Your big wish for action in the next year?

JG: For someone in Europe to establish an effective recall program. Many countries around the world adopt European requirements, so what Europe does has impacts that go beyond Europe.

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