Commission wants new powers to police car industry after VW scandal

Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen and EU Internal Market Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska are responsible for the Services Directive review. [European Commission]

The European Commission today (27 January) proposed a new regulation to overhaul how national authorities approve car types – four months after the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal rocked EU lawmakers.

The draft law will give the European Commission new powers to oversee national authorities in charge of approving vehicles.

In September, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uncovered software used by Volkswagen to manipulate emissions tests on several of its car models.

The Commission has come under pressure to investigate emissions cheating in Europe, but Internal Market Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska has said the executive will not open a probe until EU member states conclude their own inquiries.

Commission officials said the new proposal to rein in national authorities is a response to the Volkswagen scandal that they hope will shore up trust in the EU’s ability to keep check on its car industry. So-called defeat devices, like the manipulated software used by Volkswagen, are illegal in the EU.

Under the draft regulation, the Commission would gain the authority to investigate EU member states’ agencies for approving car types and potentially suspend or stop those offices if they are found to be enforcing type approval rules too loosely.

Currently, one national authority can give EU-wide approval for a car type. The Commission wants to beef up its ability to sanction national authorities and plans to impose stricter rules for vehicle tests.

In addition, the Commission’s joint research centre will join up with its internal market unit DG GROW to test car types already available on the market.

>>Read: Environment MEPs rebuff member states on diesel emissions

A spokesperson for the German authority KBA, which is responsible for approving Volkswagen’s cars, declined to comment on the draft regulation.

Last October, KBA called on authorities around Europe to issue a recall of doctored Volkswagen vehicles. But the KBA itself only has the authority to recall vehicles within Germany.

A spokesperson for the German ministry of transport had not yet responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The Commission’s proposal gives the executive other new powers to oversee car type approval in member states. In a move that would sharpen the Commission’s ability to regulate faulty car types, the executive wants to be able to issue EU-wide recalls of car models – stepping into an area now patrolled by national watchdogs.

One Commission official said the ability to test vehicles would give the EU teeth, much “like the EPA in the US”.

Another official said, “The EPA is the sole enforcing agency, while the Commission will be an additional layer of supervision, that still lies with member states.”

But campaigners said the proposal does not do enough to keep misbehaving national authorities in line.

“The principal reason why Volkswagen managed to get away with cheating in Europe was the lack of independence of national authorities, which were compromised by their cosy relationship with carmakers,” said Greg Archer, clean vehicles director at NGO Transport & Environment.

Archer said the Commission should also raise sanctions against national authorities.

“A sanction would make those national regulators see their role as being part of the European approval process,” he added.

Under the new draft regulation, manufacturers that break the law can be fined up to €30,000 per manipulated car found in the EU. The Commission currently has no ability to impose fines on car manufacturers if they don’t comply with type legislation. One Commission official called the proposed fine “very high.”

“We have to improve the quality of the technical services in the member states because they’re not working at the same level and the same quality,” Commissioner Bienkowska said this afternoon.

>>Read: UK launches inquiry into vehicle type approval after VW scandal

A spokesperson for the UK department of transport said, “We will look closely at the revised plans on type approval being suggested by the Commission and will work with other member states to ensure the EU system is robust.”

While the Commission hopes to step up its oversight powers, Bienkowska has rebuffed the idea of setting up a new EU agency tasked with monitoring the car industry.

“Creating a new agency I think for now is completely useless,” Bienkowska said.

“From our point of view, this is enough,” she added.

The proposal would muscle up the Commission with new abilities to fine, recall and police car manufacturers and national authorities.

But although the regulation would give the Commission a wide range of new powers, Bienkowska said she’s confident the draft regulation will be approved by the Council and European Parliament.

“We have full support for the new type approval system from the European Council and also the European Parliament,” she said.

The proposal comes at a time when the Commission is facing heat from Parliament on its response to the Volkswagen scandal.

MEPs are voting next week on the Commission’s proposed new tests to measure so-called real driving emissions that would be conducted on roads and not in labs.

But MEPs fired back against the Commission’s proposal, which they argue won’t enforce reduced diesel emissions levels quickly enough.

>>Read: Forty-five MEPs join inquiry committee to probe dieselgate emissions scandal

Jacob Bangsgaard, director general of FIA's operations in Europe (Federation Internationale d'Automobile): "We welcome the Commission’s effort to address and eliminate deficiencies in the vehicle type approval process. New measures to ensure that vehicles put on European roads effectively comply with legislation are needed to restore driver trust and stimulate innovation. However, in the area of repair and maintenance data, more should be done to make the framework to access technical information future proof."

Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout (Green): "Today's proposals are certainly welcome but they are proposals and it remains to be seen if EU governments, which have continually blocked stricter regulation of the car industry, will play ball. They should certainly not be viewed as some kind of trade-off to the European Parliament in exchange for parliament approving the fundamentally flawed decision on the conformity or compliance of real driving condition tests for pollutant emissions (RDE). MEPs who welcome today's proposals as a means of addressing the major problems in the regulation of the car industry must also be consistent and reject the scandalous decision on 'conformity factors' for emissions tests when they vote on 3 February. We simply cannot accept that a technical decision can overwrite EU laws on car pollution and allow car manufacturers to sell new cars that exceed EU pollutant emissions limits by significant factors."

US regulators found that Volkswagen designed software for close to half a million diesel cars that gave false emissions data during the laboratory tests. Experts consider that tests on the road are more difficult to cheat.

In Europe, while the European Commission and the national authorities are preparing more strict emissions limits, a number of inquiries have already been opened in France.

But the executive seems reluctant to open any kind of inquiry. El?bieta Bie?kowska, the Internal Market Commissioner, has upset MEPs by saying that the executive intends not to act until the member states have conducted their own national investigations.

The presidents of the European Parliament´s Environment, Transport, Internal Market and Industry committees have decided to investigate how Volkswagen cars could have cheated the testing system without the fraud being picked up at any stage by the European Commission.

  • January 2016: Car makers must start measuring NOx levels on the road.
  • February 2016: European Parliament inquiry committee Emission Measurements in the Automotive Sector to meet for the first time.
  • September 2017: The new tests are taken into account to authorize the vehicles, although there will be a phase-in period with some leeway for the sector.
  • December 2019: Full implementation of the new rules.

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