Daimler faces legal action threat over green air conditioning

  

The German car company, Daimler, is facing potential infringement proceedings from Brussels after announcing an intention to defy EU legislation and continue using a super greenhouse gas in its car air conditioning systems next year.

“We expect as a general principle that EU legislation should be respected,” Carlo Corazza, a spokesperson for the EU’s Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani told EurActiv.

“We will enforce the directive, despite this problem,” he said. “We know the Daimler position. We will see what they do in January and what our appraisal of their justification will be, and then we’ll decide [on legal action].”

From 1 January next year, the EU’s 2006 Mobile Air Conditioning (MAC) directive obliges all European car companies to limit the global warming potential (gwp) of their air conditioning refrigerants to substances less than 150 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

A replacement refrigerant called HFO-1234yf had been endorsed by all European car companies - including the German Automotive Association (VDA), of which Daimler is a member

But in a shock turnaround last September, Daimler, which makes Mercedes-Benz cars, said that a crash simulation they had performed showed that under certain conditions, HFO-1234yf could be highly flammable.  

“Due to the new findings of this study and the high safety demands at Mercedes-Benz, this chemical will not be used in its products,” a Daimler statement read. “The company therefore wishes to continue to use the proven and safe R134a refrigerant in its vehicles.”

HFO-1234yf is generally considered mildly flammable, but has been cleared for safe use by European regulators, car companies, the US Environmental Protection Agency and other national authorities.

Although both substances are clunkily-named, HFC-134a has a gwp 1,320 times higher than CO2 while HFO-1234yf's gwp is only four times higher.

Daimler officials contacted by EurActiv declined to comment. But the Liberal MEP Chris Davies, who has already drafted a parliamentary question on the issue that cannot be repeated outside for libel reasons, called on the Commission to prepare its lawyers for action.

'Evil bastards'

“Daimler has gone out of their way from day one to frustrate the MAC directive’s ambitions when other car manufacturers in Europe have had little difficulty in meeting the requirements,” he told EurActiv.

Because of miserly cost-cutting at the expense of climate legislation, “Daimler are evil bastards,” Davies added, “and I think their CEO should be summoned to the European parliament and humiliated.”

Daimler’s new findings have been challenged extensively, albeit less colourfully, by the automobile industry’s engineering society, SAE International which on 14 December announced that tests by 13 major auto-manufacturers had found 1234yf to be “a safe and acceptable alternative refrigerant”, of no concern to any other car manufacturers.

The Daimler study “has highlighted concerns with relying on one test to be reflective of real world collisions across vehicle applications,” the association said.

Honeywell, which manufactures 1234yf, welcomed the SAE report, which was in line with “an overwhelming body of data”, the company’s chief technology officer Dr Ian Shankland said in a statement.   

SAE International will now conduct a new assessment incorporating the Daimler findings by mid-February 2013, but stressed that neither it, nor most auto-manufacturers expected changes to their risk assessment.

Testing behaviour

Some industry experts, such as David Doniger, the policy director of the National Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air progamme, have raised concerns that Daimler apparently sat on its new data for months before releasing it.

“Questions have been raised about the representativeness and rigor of the simulations, and about the purity of the compound tested (it was mixed with lubricating oils),” Doniger wrote in a blog.  “Some suggest the company is under serious financial pressures and wants to stick with the current refrigerant, 134a, indefinitely as a cost-cutting measure.” 

Other car makers such as General Motors, Chrysler and Volvo were all standing by the new refrigerant, Doniger said, despite the German manufacturer’s move.

Jaguar Landrover were “hopping mad” about the development, one source told EurActiv, adding that there was deep industry scepticism about the methodologies used in the simulation.

“Daimler has apparently discovered that HFO-1234yf is flammable - well so are petrol, oil and diesel,” Davies commented. “Of course it’s flammable if you shove a flame thrower under it, which is more or less the test that Daimler is said to have carried out.”

The Daimler crash simulation discovered that a mix of the refrigerant and air-conditioning compressor oil released under a car’s hood could ignite a heated engine, Reuters reported.

Full details of the Daimler simulation have not been made public, fuelling suspicions that they did not reflect real operating conditions, Davies said.

Positions: 

The European Aluminium Association (EAA) sent EurActiv a statement saying: “The calculation method to reach the targets should be reviewed to ensure technological neutrality while giving the visibility car manufacturers are asking for. We believe that the approach of the European Commission of keeping “business as usual” is both short-sighted and unfair. Indeed, the current proposals maintain the mass-based calculation method allowing heavier vehicles to emit more. By instead basing the CO2 target on the car’s footprint (size), manufacturers would get the full CO2 credit for any efficiency improvement, including making vehicles lighter.  Reducing weight is one of the most straight forward ways to reduce the energy consumption and hence also the CO2 emissions of a car.”

Timeline: 
  • 1 Jan. 2013: MAC directive scheduled to come into effect, banning air conditioning refrigerants with a global warming potential of more than 150 times higher than carbon dioxide.
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