The consequences of ‘Dieselgate’
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Johannesburg - If there is some good that can come of of the Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ saga that saw the German carmaker rig its diesel cars to cheat emissions tests in the United States, it’s that car buyers could in future expect more accurate fuel consumption and emissions data attached to the vehicles they buy - both petrol and diesel-powered ones.
Apart from the new revelation that diesel engines powering certain VWs and Audis have unhealthy nitrogen oxide emissions, many times higher than claimed by the factory, it’s long been a bone of contention that manufacturer-quoted fuel consumption figures are far lower (by as much as half) than what motorists can achieve in normal driving.
The VW scandal has brought this industry-wide issue into focus and prompted European authorities to look at introducing more realistic homologation tests representative of real conditions.
Consumption/emissions tests are at present conducted in-house by car companies according to government-regulated standard activity cycles, in labs and on test tracks. But the carmakers employ consumption-reducing tricks such as removing cars’ wing mirrors and taping up body shutlines to improve aerodynamics.
These vehicles are then marketed to the public with wholly-unrealistic CO2 and fuel consumption figures unattainable by customers in real-world driving.
It’s a very lax environment but America’s regulators, unlike Europe’s, at least randomly stage their own tests to verify the manufacturers’ findings.
STRICTER TESTS MOOTED
In South Africa there is no compulsory independent testing of car emissions and consumption, and the CO2 tax levied on vehicles is based on factory-quoted homologation figures.
But the scandal that led to VW’s chief executive Martin Winterkorn resigning in disgrace has prompted European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans to say the EU could change its laws to introduce stricter emissions tests, which in turn would also affect vehicles sold in South Africa.
The view was echoed by German environment minister Barbara Hendricks, who said: “We can’t just rely on tests in the lab; future tests should focus more on normal road conditions.
“We are currently working on new, honest measuring methods at the seat of the EU in Brussels.”
The discrepancy between real and claimed fuel consumption figures has already landed some local motor companies in hot water.
In 2014 Ford was forced to withdraw an internet advertisement that misled the South African public about the fuel consumption of its EcoSport crossover vehicle. The Advertising Standards Authority ruling found that Ford’s advert didn’t sufficiently inform motorists that the quoted consumption figures were obtained in controlled-lab conditions and thus weren’t realistically attainable by customers.
In making its finding the ASA referred to earlier similar cases including a ruling in a 2012 case brought by a VW Polo owner, where it stated that “standardised tests are invaluable in ensuring that potential buyers can compare fairly across manufacturer ranges, but the consumption figures claimed must make it clear whether or not they were achieved in ‘the real world’ or under laboratory conditions.”
The VW scandal is one of the biggest yet to hit the auto industry, and led to the resignation of chief executive Martin Winterkorn, who was replaced by Porsche chief Matthias Müller last week. It involved the 78-year-old German car company installing a ‘defeat device’ to pass America’s stringent nitrogen oxides emissions tests.
Software in the engine control module of about 11 million diesel-engined VWs and Audis (that are now subject to a global recall) was able to sense when a car was being tested under controlled laboratory conditions or being driven on the road.
On the test rig, the car belched out far fewer harmful emissions than normal in order to comply with emissions regulations.
When the system detected the cars were being driven on the road, the engine went back to normal, delivering more performance but producing up to 40 times the allowed levels of NOx.
Although diesel-car sales account for only around one percent of sales in the US, it’s a bigger issue in Europe, where around half of all new cars sold are diesels, as well as in South Africa where diesel cars and bakkies have a 31percent market penetration. NOx has been found to increase the risk of respiratory problems after long-term exposure in humans. Its presence in air contributes to the formation and modification of other air pollutants, such as ozone and particulate matter, and to acid rain.
The scandal is leading to a major worldwide recall of affected cars, and Switzerland has already banned the sales of all diesel VWs that could be fitted with cheat devices.
VW South Africa is awaiting word from its overseas parent company on how many diesel Volkswagens running on local roads are affected and whether there will be any recall campaign. - Star Motoring
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