VW diesel scandal - Are car manufacturers taking us for a ride?

Car emissions

Updated Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Back when we first published this article back in 2013, we warned diesel drivers to brace themselves as proposals to lower the limit on CO2 emissions could push the price of a new car up by almost £900. 


Then the situation got a lot worse as it came to light that VW had used a prohibited ‘defeat device’ to fudge the numbers on emissions tests and make its vehicles appear a lot more environmentally sound than they actually are. It could affect as many as 11 million vehicles worldwide. The worry now is more car manufacturers may be found guilty of manipulating the figures and the whole mess could spell the end for diesel engines – to put that problem in perspective, more than half of new cars sold throughout Europe are run on diesel. And the thing is, the VW diesel scandal is sure to be the thin end of the wedge as it seems manufacturers have been rigging emissions figures for quite some time now. Here’s the story as we reported it two years ago…

Emissions figures rigging – the story so far

To help the European Union (EU) meet its target of a 60% reduction in transport CO2 emissions by 2050, the European Commission (EC) has proposed that the limit on CO2 emissions be dropped to 95g per kilometre by 2020. Fine and dandy. But it’s reckoned the new materials and technology needed to meet these emissions targets will put an extra £860 on the screen price of a new car come 2020. And here’s the kicker.

A study by lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E) suggests that car manufacturers are manipulating CO2 emission and fuel consumption tests to boost their cars’ performance figures by an average of 23%. A new emissions test has been scheduled for introduction in 2016, but car manufacturers don’t want it to be implemented for another eight years – which, funnily enough, will take us to 2021, when additional costs can be factored-in during manufacture. So, are car manufacturers taking us for a ride? Let’s take a look…

The 2020 vision

The current EU objective on climate change is predicated on the thesis that global temperatures are rising due to human activity. It wants to limit any increase in the global temperature to just 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – when England was still a green and relatively pleasant land – and, for this to be achieved, it says global emission levels need to be 50% lower in 2050 than they were in 1990.

The EC says that, if this objective is to be met, CO2 levels need to have peaked by 2020 – hence the activity on car emissions. It also believes that implementing the 95g limit is an integral part of safeguarding Europe’s competitive edge in the global car market – there is a perceived threat in the fact that US manufacturers are working towards an emissions target of 93g per km by 2025. A joint report from climate consultancy groups Cambridge Econometrics and Ricardo-AEA estimates that implementing the new technology will lead to the creation of up to 450,000 new jobs in the industry and so will have economic as well as environmental benefits.

The report also suggests that motorists will also be better off in the long term as the more fuel-efficient vehicles will deliver savings on running costs of up to £350 per year, which would mean that extra manufacturing costs could be offset within three years. However, there is a worry that consumers will not be able to afford, or willing to pay, the extra initial outlay and so will stick to cheaper, older vehicles with higher emission levels. And then there’s the small matter of manufacturers allegedly manipulating emissions and fuel consumption tests to ensure their cars deliver better results.

The great fuel consumption ‘swindle’

Due to the seemingly inexorable rise of petrol and diesel prices, fuel economy has become a major consideration when buying a new car. However, there’s a good chance the promise of 60-plus miles per gallon can only be reached under test conditions, and not on the road in true driving conditions. According to a report released by Transport & Environment, car manufacturers are manipulating test results by, among other things, pumping slick tyres so they’re extra hard to reduce rolling resistance, taping up grilles, body panels and removing wing mirrors to lower wind resistance, and even disconnecting brakes to reduce friction.

In short, manufacturers stand accused of altering the test vehicles in ways that would be neither practical nor legal on the road, and the claim is that this practice is creating an ever-increasing gap between the fuel consumption the manufacturers claim the cars will deliver and what motorists can actually achieve. The reason manufacturers can manipulate tests appears to be simply because the test is outdated, as Greg Archer, programme manager for vehicles at Transport & Environment, explains: “The test is over 30 years old, so the procedures are out of date. And what the manufacturers are now doing is bending the rules to get the lowest results they possibly can so the figures appear to be very good in the tests and in the showroom, but when the motorists get them home they find that they’re fuel consumption is up to 25% higher on average.”

Archer continues: “Our evidence suggests this is an endemic problem across the industry. All the car makers are doing this. What we really need is for a new test to be introduced. There is a new test which is almost finished and the car makers have been working on that. But unfortunately they’re now saying they don’t want it introduced for another eight years and that’s principally because they know that the new test is much more robust and they can’t manipulate the results in the same way.” The Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders have hit back at these claims, saying it supports enhancements to the testing procedure and that the data garnered from the current tests are prone to error simply because only a limited number of vehicles are tested.

However, they added that manufacturers carry out over 3,500 tests that are not only complicit with detailed legal guidelines but are also independently verified. The real problem is that the current procedures are so lax that manufacturers can influence the test results without having to resort to any formal rule breaking – so, until the new tests hopefully eradicate this practice, we’ll just have to look at other ways in which we can beat the high fuel costs.

Do you think the VW scandal will signal the end of the diesel engine? And what will the implications be for us motorists? Let us know your thoughts…

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