Car emissions campaigners turn sights on Renault

Renault Espace

The new Renault Espace presented at the Paris auto show, October 2014. [Thibault Le Mer/Flickr]

Renault’s flagship Espace minivan released toxic diesel emissions 25 times over legal limits in a Swiss study, despite complying with EU tests carried out at unrealistically low engine temperatures, a German environmental group said on Tuesday (24 November).

The tests commissioned by the DUH group, which have not been independently verified, follows Volkswagen’s admission that it used illegal “defeat devices” to cheat diesel emission regulations.

In a statement, Renault said it contested the findings of the DUH lobby group.

Environmental and consumer groups are leading calls for improved European Union tests to bring soaring car emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide into line with legal limits.

The DUH, which had earlier singled out General Motors’ Opel brand in tests which suggested NOx emissions on the road were higher than those measured in official testing, has turned its fire on France’s Renault in a report commissioned from the University of Applied Sciences, in Bern.

When run with a warm or hot engine, a 1.6-litre Espace of the latest Euro 6 diesel generation emitted up to 2.06 grammes of NOx per kilometre, the campaign group said, more than 25 times the EU limit. The vehicle met the statutory 80 milligramme cap only with a cold engine after “specific pre-conditioning”.

GM last month rejected similar DUH findings on its Opel Zafira model, after running its own tests monitored by Germany’s TUV certification body.

The VW diesel scandal has drawn attention to a wider pattern of legal test manipulation that stops short of outright cheating.

>>Read: VW scandal prompts calls for EU-wide inquiry

The EU rules themselves are now acknowledged to be inadequate even by carmakers such as PSA Peugeot Citroën. PSA, Renault’s main rival on the French car market, announced on Tuesday it was partnering with Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based NGO, to measure and publicise real-world fuel economy figures. In a statement, Carlos Tavares, the Chairman of PSA’s Managing Board, said the partnership with T&E will “highlight the advanced technologies that PSA Peugeot Citroën is developing to contribute to fuel efficiency”.

Carmakers routinely strip out standard equipment to reduce test vehicles’ mass, tape up door joints and fit bald tyres that would be illegal on the road.

Tuesday’s DUH findings may shed light on the real-world impact of optimising engines to pass tests only when cold – which would be another tactic allowed by the current regime.

“It’s unbelievable that so-called modern diesel vehicles that damage the air we breathe in this way are on the road today,” campaigner Axel Friedrich said in the DUH statement.

Friedrich is a co-founder and council member of the Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which commissioned the original investigation that led eventually to the exposure of VW’s test-rigging.

Europe needs a “comprehensive reorganisation of the system in which mandatory regular controls on the street are integrated”, he said.

EU moves to phase in real-world emissions measurements were watered down in committee last month under sustained German-led lobbying.

>>Read: Member states resist stricter controls on diesel car emissions

Volkswagen admitted in September to rigging US diesel emissions tests, unleashing a scandal that forced out longstanding CEO Martin Winterkorn and may cost the group as much as €40 billion in recall costs, fines and compensation, some analysts estimate.

The European Commission and national authorities agreed to more stringent emissions limits, based on real driving conditions instead of laboratory tests.

But countries with an important automotive sector were opposed to implementing the new rules too quickly and called for extra breathing space for the car makers to adapt.

A compromise agreement was finally reached in late October which allows vehicles to carry on emitting more than twice the agreed pollution limits, despite the outcry caused by the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The Commission proposed that "real-world" testing should become operational starting in 2016, and take full effect after a two-year phase-in for new vehicles starting in 2017. Initially nitrogen oxide (NOx) readings, primarily associated with diesel cars, could exceed an 80 milligramme/kilometre limit by 60% before falling to 20%.

Instead, the compromise agreement sets a "conformity factor" of 2.1 from late 2017, meaning cars could emit more than twice the official limit. Two years later, it would fall to 1.5, meaning vehicles could emit nitrogen oxides, associated with respiratory disease and premature death, up to 50% above the legal ceiling.

>>Read: Member states resist stricter controls on diesel car emissions

Subscribe to our newsletters