Commission discovers car industry’s attempt to game emission targets


Carmakers are reportedly trying to make life easier for themselves by artificially increasing emissions during testing. [Lana Elcova]

European Commission experts have unearthed evidence that carmakers are using “tricks” to reduce the impact of emission rules set to come into force in 2020, by manipulating tests to make current emission levels look worse than they actually are.

In a reversal of 2016’s Dieselgate scandal, where Volkswagen was found to have used “defeat devices” to cheat laboratory tests and hide high emissions, evidence provided by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) appears to show that carmakers are now doing the opposite.

Under legislation due to come into force in 2020, new cars will have to emit less CO2 compared with 2021 levels. The Commission has proposed a 15% reduction target for 2025 and 30% for 2030 but the European Parliament and member states are yet to agree on the final figures.

That 2020-2021 starting point has now taken on renewed importance, as the JRC data suggests that some carmakers are artificially inflating the results of their worldwide light vehicles test procedure (WLTP) – a new protocol set to be the basis of emission testing.

An inflated starting point means that legally-binding emission cuts will be less significant in real-world application and some estimates insist the manipulation could reduce the stringency of next decade targets by half.

Netherlands sees an opening for more ambitious car CO2 limits

The European Commission’s proposal for new car CO2 limits left many disappointed. But a spate of new governments in Europe – and shifting positions in Berlin – means those who want higher targets and an electric vehicle mandate have everything to play for.

“We don’t like tricks,” EU climate boss Miguel Arias Cañete told the Financial Times, and added: “We have seen things we don’t like. We are going to do all the necessary work so that the starting points are the real ones.”

In particular, the JRC tests show that carmakers, none of which were named, had switched off test models’ start-stop function, installed depleted batteries so fuel consumption increased and run adjusted gear-change patterns, all in order to increase emissions.

Compared to independent testing, the JRC found that emissions were an average 4.5% higher, while in some cases that number reached 13%.

In a letter to member states, Cañete and industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska revealed that the Commission is proposing that the starting point should be calculating using “WLTP values measured” rather than values declared by manufacturers.

William Todts, executive director of Transport & Environment, said: After Dieselgate, carmakers promised to change and that new tests were the solution. Now it’s clear they’re using these new tests to undermine the already weak CO2 standards.”

He added that “they want to meet these with minimal effort so they can keep selling diesels and delay the shift to electric cars. It’s a sad reminder the car industry wants to stay in the past and cannot be trusted.

T&E also added in a statement that there had likely been collusion among carmakers to manipulate these tests in order to “maintain a level playing field”, urging the Commission to extend its cartel investigations to this case.

The Commission’s findings were sent to the Austrian EU Presidency, the head of the Parliament’s environment committee and the lead MEP on the car CO2 file, Maltese lawmaker Miriam Dalli (S&D group).

EU car lobby chief: Why we support a 20% CO2 target for 2030

There is “no way” carmakers can hit the EU’s proposed CO2 emission targets with fuel combustion engines, argues Erik Jonnaert, saying “at least half” of the reduction will have to come from electric and hybrid vehicles.

Subscribe to our newsletters