London - One year after the “Dieselgate” scandal engulfed Volkswagen, shocking new figures show that many of Europe's other large car manufacturers are even worse polluters. All of the biggest brands, including Fiat, Vauxhall and Renault produce diesel cars that pump out even more harmful pollution than the German company's; some by several multiples.

In September last year, it was discovered that Volkswagen had been cheating emissions tests by fitting cars with software that drastically lowered emissions in laboratory conditions. Those cars emit far higher levels of harmful pollutants when on the road, because the system turns itself off.

Fiat's diesel cars emit a staggering 15 times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide when tested on the road, according to new research by campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E). The poisonous gas inflames the lining of the lungs, damages the immune system and causes breathing difficulties, especially for those with asthma. It is estimated to be responsible for 23 500 deaths per year in the UK.

Renault vehicles average more than 14 times the current legal standard, known as Euro 6, and Vauxhall/Opel fared little better, with NOx levels ten times over the limit. There is no evidence that other manufacturers included specific software to cheat the system as Volkswagen did, but many have designed their cars to dupe laboratory emissions tests. Four out of five cars investigated emit more than triple the safe level of the gas, despite being cleared by regulators.

“We’ve had this focus on Volkswagen as a “dirty carmaker” but when you look at the emissions of other manufacturers you find there are no really clean carmakers,” said Greg Archer, clean vehicles director at T&E. “Volkswagen is not the carmaker producing the diesel cars with highest nitrogen oxides emissions and the failure to investigate other companies brings disgrace on the European regulatory system.”

The damning report criticises “feeble” regulation of cars by national authorities that have focused on protecting their own commercial interests ahead of protecting public health. T&E points out that testing bodies have a blatant conflict of interest as they receive the bulk of their revenues from the car companies they are regulating. This results in a race to the bottom where national regulators compete for the business of car manufacturers by offering more lax testing, the report says.

Misusing a loophole

Carmakers claim that they are within their rights to turn off emissions purifying systems but T&E say this is “almost certainly illegally misusing a loophole”. Manufacturers are reluctant to set up their cars to turn on the devices more frequently because their durability is uncertain. Many are concerned they will break and have to be refitted, costing companies money.

The result is that there are 29 million highly polluting cars – defined as those emitting three times the legal limit – still on Europe's roads, including 4.3 million in the UK. The US response is in stark contrast to the European one. Volkswagen faces a $15bn (R209bn) bill for fines and compensation and has been forced to recall hundred of thousands of cars. American VW owners can expect up to $10 000 (R14 000) from the company. Those in the UK will get nothing. A year on from the debacle and only one in ten of the offending cars have been fixed in this country.

No action has yet been taken against other manufacturers, all of whom insist that they have stuck within the letter of the law. The EU is belatedly working on a test that measures emissions on the road rather than in artificial lab conditions. The Real Driving Emissions test will be introduced next year, but, after lobbying from the car industry, only diesels that emit more than twice the lab limit when on the road will be banned.

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