Report says EU was warned of vehicle emissions rigging in 2013

Remember me? The gasoline-powered Volkswagen Corrado G60. [Spanish Coches/Flickr]

The European Union’s top environmental official warned his colleagues that automakers were rigging European emissions tests in 2013, long before the scam was uncovered last month, the Financial Times reported on Sunday (25 October).

One of the biggest scandals in the history of the automobile sector came to light after German carmaker Volkswagen admitted it had fitted 11 million of its vehicles with software designed to cheat official checks.

Top EU regulators were aware of test manipulation two years ago, but allowed regulatory loopholes to remain, according to the FT, which cited an exchange of letters between officials.

“There are widespread concerns that performance has been tailored tightly to compliance with the test cycle in disregard of the dramatic increase in emissions outside that narrow scope,” Janez Potocnik, the EU Commissioner for the Environment,  wrote to Industrial Policy Commissioner Antonio Tajani in February 2013, according to the newspaper.

Potocnik urged Tajani to take “remedial action” with manufacturers and withdraw the EU’s approval for some vehicles, according to the FT. But existing rules were maintained and the practice remained in place.

The report comes as environment ministers meet in Luxembourg today. Ministers “will be informed on issues related to real driving emissions tests and to the manipulation of emission control systems in cars, as a serious impediment to the improvement of air quality in the EU,” according to the meeting’s agenda.

Six EU member states, including major automaker France, have urged the European Commission to thoroughly assess the consequences of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. At issue is the date when the real driving tests should be enforced and what delay should be allowed before emissions limits are policed fully.

Officially, the real-life tests will begin in January, but only for reference. The executive’s proposal, which remains unofficial, allows car companies until 2019 to fully implement the new standard, a delay seen as unjustified by activists.

>> Read: Dieselgate: More EU countries join call for stricter emission tests

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 be cheated.

A number of inquiries have already been opened in France and elsewhere. But the EU 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.

Separately, the European Union has introduced new tests that will become mandatory for all new vehicles as of September 2017. According to the European Commission’s proposal, car makers will have to start measuring Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) levels on the road in parallel with laboratory tests, which were cheated by Volkswagen engineers. As with laboratory tests, the limit is set at 80 mg/km.

But countries with an important automotive sector are opposed to the new rules. This group includes Germany, Spain, Italy and the Eastern countries, except Poland. To placate critics, the Commission now plans to grant a 60% margin over the 80 mg/km limit over a period of two years (until September 2019) to facilitate the implementation of the new rules. This is because the EU executive believes that one in ten vehicles will fail the test, and therefore won't be able to circulate under the new regulation.

  • 16 October: Member states are expected to submit their positions on the new rules.
  • 26 October: Environment Council
  • End October: Next meeting of the Technical Committee for Motor Vehicles, the comitology body involving EU officials and national experts in charge of setting the new rules.
  • January 2016: Car makers must start measuring NOx levels on the road.
  • September 2017: The new tests are taken into account to authorise 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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