Ever since Volkswagen Group confessed last September to cheating diesel emissions tests on an unprecedented scale, Europe's auto industry has scurried to contain the reputational fallout from the public health risk and to deflect criticism from a technology deemed critical to meeting CO2 reduction targets.
Facing an uphill battle to preserve support, automakers have rallied around one simple message: The latest Euro 6 diesels into which they have sunk billions of euros are among the cleanest, most efficient around and without them there would be no chance of curbing fleet CO2 emissions to the mandated 95 grams per kilometer by 2021, down from 119g/km last year. But a cloud of suspicion has descended on the industry that has left automakers struggling to shape the public debate. More red tape, stricter testing regimens and greater scrutiny as a result of the VW Group's fraud are only the beginning.
"Currently we don't have the four-eye principle, it's more like the six or eight-eye principle," Audi's new development boss, Stefan Knirsch, told reporters last month, adding that his engineering team at the VW Group subsidiary was re-examining every internal process, not just those dealing with emissions after treatment.
EU Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, responsible for industrial policy in the internal market, slammed national agencies in November for failing to do their jobs and said her team was "working hard to present a proposal to strengthen the type-approval system and reinforce the independence of vehicle testing." A new EU parliamentary subcommittee plans to investigate over the course of an entire year the way the sector measures emissions. This loss of political goodwill could mean the next round of CO2 targets, due in early 2017, wind up closer to what environmentalists would like to see, hastening the disappearance of all combustion engines, not just diesels. Some EU lawmakers, unhappy with the pace at which the industry cuts carbon emissions, have been pushing for three years now to lower the 2025 limits to as little as 68g/km.
"The problem created by Volkswagen has had a huge impact on the credibility of the automotive industry as a whole," said Carlos Tavares, the head of Europe's second-largest carmaker, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, in an interview during the Geneva auto show. Never one to mince words and often a fierce critic of Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne told reporters during the show that carmakers are effectively walking around with a bull's-eye target painted on their backs. "It’s making our life much more difficult by far. And our reputation, I think, has suffered collectively," he said.