Industry shifts blame, again, for diesel woes

Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's  Germany correspondent.Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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What does the German auto industry do if it has skirted the spirit of emission laws for years only to see this ethically questionable – and in Volkswagen Group’s case outright criminal – behavior come back to haunt them? Shift the debate.

The ongoing legal fight over whether to ban diesels from entering cities on polluted days is a direct result of manufacturers building cars that for years were only clean during certification. Once on the street, their nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels soared as engine management software instructed the cars to switch off their after-treatment systems. This often happened under the legal guise that soot might otherwise build up and damage the vehicle’s mechanics in almost any ambient temperature.

In the course of reporting on our October cover story about the subsequent abrupt drop in diesel demand, a common theme kept emerging: Others are to blame. Yes, the industry admits that “serious errors were made in some places,” but aren’t others at fault, too?

First came the media for scaring the public by blowing the whole debate out of proportion, then criticism was leveled at politicians for being more concerned with looking good ahead of impending national elections on Sept. 24 than finding a low-cost solution. Finally, customers themselves were simply not able to “intellectually differentiate” between facts and allegations made by the opposing camps.

Stuck between prohibitively expensive changes to a car’s hardware and the limited reductions they can bring via a software update, automakers don’t have much maneuvering room to solve a crisis they brought upon themselves.

Some have now begun to openly question the very EU legislation itself. Derived from a recommendation by the World Health Organization, cities are not allowed to exceed a limit of 40 micrograms of the acrid gas per cubic meter of ambient air on an average annual basis. But the industry argues the EU’s limit for NO2 concentration is not based on epidemiological evidence connecting that level with a threat to public health.

“The legal limit for the industrial workplace is an order of magnitude higher,” grumbled a senior r&d executive at a German automaker, “and nobody has been able to explain that to me.”

They’ve now gone public with that criticism.

Matthias Wissmann, former German transportation minister and now lobbyist-in-chief for the country’s manufacturers, told Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic at last month’s Frankfurt show opening ceremony that other jurisdictions had it easier.

The U.S. environmental agency EPA employs a more moderate limit of 100 micrograms, for example. “Under that definition, there would be no relevant breaches in Germany,” Wissmann said.

Essentially they are saying the problem is not so much that the industry cannot hit the goal, it’s the goal itself that happens to be in the wrong place. The solution then? Simply move the goalposts far enough so that it won’t miss them anymore.

When it comes to the high art of shifting blame, that tactic reaches new heights of cynicism.

You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at

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