Officials from the US environmental watchdog that uncovered the Volkswagen emissions scandal paid a visit to Brussels last week – amid the European Parliament’s hot-button vote on real driving emissions.
A group of officials led by Christopher Gründler, head of the office of transportation and air quality at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), met last Thursday (4 February) with members of cabinet of EU Energy Commissioner Maroš Šef?ovi? and Internal Market Commissioner El?bieta Bie?kowska, along with one official from the Commission secretariat general.
The EPA officials also met with MEPs from five political groups. Most of the MEPs are members in the new inquiry committee that is investigating how EU institutions policed the Volkswagen emissions scandal that broke last September.
EU sources denied that the EPA officials were in Brussels to give advice to the Commission on how to step up its efforts to catch cheating car manufacturers.
Two weeks ago, the Commission proposed a new regulation that would give the executive an arsenal of powers to test cars available on the market in Europe, fine manufacturers up to €30,000 per vehicle doctored with so-called defeat devices and sanction national regulators that are too soft on cheating companies.
Commission officials described that move as a bid to make the EU executive more “like the EPA in the US”.
But campaigners have said the Commission’s regulations of the car industry do not measure up to the EPA’s.
“With the US EPA exposing the VW cheating, there is a lot the European Commission can learn from the dialogue. The EPA-like powers to spot-check vehicles on the road and penalize non-compliant car makers, including fines and recalls, should be given to the Commission,” said Julia Poliscanova, policy officer for clean vehicles and air quality at NGO Transport & Environment.
EU sources said it was a coincidence that the Commission’s meeting with EPA officials took place one day after a slim majority of MEPs voted not to veto the executive’s controversial proposal on real driving emissions (RDE) tests for diesel vehicles. The EPA officials met with MEPs in the days before the vote.
MEPs confirmed that they discussed with the EPA delegation what the Commission could learn from US emissions testing.
The EU executive has been careful about openly comparing itself to the EPA, which has more power to test vehicles and sanction misbehaving manufacturers.
“We would like to be like the EPA, but we have to convince the member states,” one Commission official said.
The maximum penalty of €30,000 per vehicle outfitted with emissions cheating software is also based on the EPA’s fines per car.
A spokesperson for the EU executive said the EPA and Commission would “stay in touch regularly to exchange information and best practices”.
The EPA uses five different test cycles to probe cars for defeat devices. There is currently only one EU-wide test cycle, although the RDE testing draft law will update the test.
“If you test the right way and have the right laboratory equipment and the right people you do not need to go through 100 million lines of code to find defeat devices,” said Christopher Gründler of the EPA, when asked what tips he would give to the Commission to beef up their oversight of the car industry.
“You just need to have the right test procedures and the right resources,” he added.
“In the United States what we’ve learned is to have these five that cover this very broad range of operating conditions. A standard and rigorous set of test cycles are also meaningless unless you have the authority, the resources and the will to enforce.”
The European Commission wants to carry out tests of vehicles available for sale in Europe with the EU joint research centre. EU Internal Market Commissioner El?bieta Bie?kowska has said she does not think it is necessary to set up a new EU agency to test vehicles and oversee the car industry.
On Thursday (18 February) MEPs in the Environment Committee (ENVI) will debate the newly approved RDE testing measures. An official from the EU joint research centre will also speak at the committee meeting.
Some details of the RDE tests still need to be ironed out. The Commission is expected to lay out new provisions on particulate matter emissions shortly.
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.
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.