Volkswagen Group isn't the only automaker having to explain excessive nitrogen oxide emissions from its models, especially in Europe, where even vehicles that have been certified as compliant with new Euro 6 standards produce seven times more NOx than allowed when on the road, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Vicente Franco, who is a senior researcher at ICCT, the nonprofit group that helped expose VW's cheating on emissions tests last year, shared his views on the topic with Automotive News Europe during a phone interview last month.
Since the Volkswagen Group emissions cheating scandal was revealed has there been any evidence others are guilty of this kind of fraud?
What we know for sure is that the new diesel cars in Europe have high NOx emissions. We estimate that the average Euro 6 vehicle on the road has a conformity factor of seven. That means they emit seven times more NOx than they’re certified for [560 milligrams of NOx per kilometer instead of 80mg/km]. But that doesn't mean every car is the same because the other characteristic we are seeing from Euro 6 diesels is that there are very large differences across different manufacturers. You can have a vehicle that has OK emissions during certain driving conditions, typically conditions that are covered by the certification tests, but as soon as you go outside of this boundary NOx goes up very quickly.
Does that mean that other manufacturers have defeat devices?
It's difficult to judge. The fact is that the emissions are higher than they should be. Whether this is coming from weak regulation or from dishonest emission control strategies from manufacturers or a combination of both, we don’t really know.
Has the VW scandal brought more attention to a problem that was already there?
Looking at the emissions data, there are several manufacturers that have problems. Volkswagen was, perhaps, a particularly bad offender because it had two calibrations. One of the calibrations was detecting the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s] FTP [federal test procedure] cycle. Even in the lab if you are not running the certification cycle it would switch to the on-road cheating calibration. It was kind of over-engineered to detect the precise certification cycles for the U.S. You don’t really need to go to those lengths to engineer a defeat device.
How is a defeat device defined?
If you have a system that diminishes the effectiveness of your after treatment during real-world driving, that's a defeat device. You can do that, for example, by detecting ambient temperature. That's something that we have seen from a couple of manufacturers.
For example, BMW and Daimler. Based on measurements done by third parties, they were showing a markedly different emissions profile as soon as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees Celsius. There is no reason to switch off your NOx control under 10 degrees Celsius because that's a common temperature in western Europe. Their line of defense was that they needed to switch off or diminish the effectiveness of their NOx control systems below 10 degrees Celsius to protect the integrity of the engine. The engines would break if they were to run clean in the winter. From our point of view, there's no technical justification for this.
What is the next step?
The European authorities have not really responded to this yet. It's up to them to decide whether this appeal is valid. They may ask them to recalibrate their systems. Other manufacturers already have committed to recalibrating their systems, such as Fiat [and Renault]. From our point of view, it's technically feasible to have clean diesel. You will have to pay some penalties in terms of cost trade-offs, but it's not an impossible technical challenge.
In the future, do you expect the EU to be less friendly to the industry during negotiations on emissions, which could put automotive jobs and profits at risk?
In the end there will be a compromise. But I would expect automakers to branch out into alternative technologies. Hybridization and full-electric vehicles seem to be an obvious choice. If the European authorities give the manufacturers the appropriate lead time, jobs should not suffer. And, if Europe becomes the technological leader in electro-mobility as we have been for decades in diesel mobility, this might even be an excellent opportunity for job creation. I'm quite confident that the future of the auto industry is rather bright.
Will moving to real driving emissions rules be a shock for the industry?
They will not have too much struggle meeting the conformity factors that are currently proposed. I don't expect a big impact to diesel sales in the short run, but in the long run, when we get rid of this market distortion that stems from diesels being allowed to emit substantially more NOx than they should, then manufacturers will probably need to re-think their product planning strategy. We will probably see fewer diesels in the smaller segments and we will see a shift of investments from diesel to other technologies.
Because there are trade-offs, such as the durability of the systems and some fuel penalties that the customer has to pay. For example, there's a 3 percent to 4 percent overconsumption penalty that you have to pay if you want to have an LNT (lean NOx trap) that is fully operational. There is an incentive to cut corners or to change the calibrations because the European emission certification system does not, or did not until very recently, factor in the on-road test. It was just a laboratory test. These systems are fully operational during the homologation test in the laboratory with NEDC [new European driving cycle], but when on the road it can be substantially different picture. And that's where the problem is.