What is Dieselgate?
Diesel fuel powered cars by the manufacturer VW pollute the environment much more than is allowed, the US government agency EPA asserted in September 2015.
While they meet legal emissions limits in lab tests, they actually emit much more harmful Nitrogen oxides (NOx) under real driving conditions. VW admitted to deliberately cheating on the tests using so-called “defeat devices” deployed in 11 million cars worldwide. Such devices are specifically forbidden under both EU and US law.
Recent studies are indicating that other manufacturers might be affected by similar issues, although they are so far denying any wrongdoing.
Air pollution contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the EU yearly. NOx emissions have been shown to aggravate respiratory and heart diseases and contribute to environmental pollution through acid rain and smog.
How can cars cheat on emissions tests?
“Defeat devices” in cars deliberately activate extra emissions controls when they detect a testing environment. How do these tests work?For a description of how these tests work, see the European Environment Agency's report Explaining road transport emissions - A non-technical guide (PDF).
These controls may not be active in real driving circumstances for a variety of reasons: To increase the car's fuel economy and performance, to allow drivers to save on Diesel exhaust fluid or, according to manufacturers, to protect the engine in certain conditions such as cool weather.
Why and what is the European Parliament investigating?
Diesel cars are especially popular in the EU, representing just over half of the cars sold. A third of NOx gases in the Union are produced by diesel cars.
Some lines of inquiry will be:
Insufficient tests: EU law requires cars to meet the emissions limit values “in normal use”, yet a lab test in any EU country allows the car to be sold all over Europe. The testing procedures, which reported no signs of cheating, were last updated in 1990 and allow for a lot of flexibility. They are conducted by private companies and paid for by the car manufacturers. Thus an economic incentive exists to approve vehicles to generate repeat business. Detecting defeat devices is also hampered by lack of access to the car's software due to laws on trade secrets or copyright restrictions on manipulating the software.
Failure to act: As early as 2010, the Commission's Joint Research Centre concluded “that there is a problem with diesel NOx emissions on the road”, yet no action was taken.
Industry influence: Did the car industry influence the design of this system, the rules or their oversight? Research points to yesInfluenceMap report: How the automotive industry shaped policy
The Committee is not investigating particular car manufacturers or conducting emissions tests. See the official mandate text.
How will the investigation work?
The Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Kathleen van Brempt (S&D) and made up of 45 members and as many substitutes, will work for a year and present a final report in March 2017. An interim report will be published at the half-way mark.
The Committee will invite witnesses and experts to its meetings, go on fact-finding missions and analyse large numbers of documents.
The Greens/EFA group is the only to have made their agenda in the Committee transparent.
Photo: cc-by-nc Georgie Sharp