VW scandal prompts calls for EU-wide inquiry

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Problems remain. Germany's lack of sanctions against Volkswagen for its part in Dieselgate being chief among them. [SenseiAlan/ Flickr]

While the emission cheating scandal has so far been restricted to Volkswagen, environmental protection groups, particularly in Germany, suspect other carmakers may be using similar technology, prompting calls for a Europe-wide review of car emission tests.

The VW scandal escalated dramatically when the automaker revealed 11 million of its cars worldwide could be affected, wiping a third off the company’s market value and threatening to topple its chief executive.

France called for a Europe-wide investigation and announced it would launch an “in-depth” probe, while Germany called for “full transparency” in the scandal.

Britain, meanwhile, called on the European Commission to urgently investigate vehicle emissions tests.

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt said there was no indication so far that others apart from Volkswagen were involved. A commission of inquiry would travel this week to the VW Group headquarters in the northern city of Wolfsburg, the minister added.

According to the US authorities, Volkswagen has admitted that it equipped about 482,000 cars in the United States with sophisticated software that covertly turns off pollution controls when the car is being driven. It turns them on only when it detects that the vehicle is undergoing an emissions test.

With the so-called “defeat device” deactivated, the car can spew pollutant gases into the air, including nitrogen oxide in amounts as much as 40 times higher than emissions standards, said the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

>>Read: VW software scandal: Chief apologises for breaking public trust

In the United States, the EPA said on Monday (21 September) that it will screen for defeat devices in other manufacturers’ diesel vehicles now on the road, although it declined to identify the automakers whose vehicles will be tested. US auto giants Ford and General Motors saw their shares drop 2.8% and 1.9% respectively, as the impact of the VW scandal hit other carmakers.

Commission: ‘We need to get to the bottom of this’

In a statement on Tuesday (22 September), European Commission spokesperson Lucia Caudet said investigations were ongoing and it was premature to say whether “immediate surveillance measures” were also necessary in Europe.

“But let me be clear: We need to get to the bottom of this. For the sake of our consumers and the environment, we need certainty that industry scrupulously respects emissions limits,” she said.

The spokesperson added that the Commission was in contact with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), as well as Volkswagen, to establish the details of the recall of the car manufacturer’s vehicles in the United States.

Caudet also called on member states to rigorously enforce vehicle standards, saying it was their responsibility.

“National authorities responsible for vehicle type approval and enforcement of emissions testing need to be particularly vigilant and rigorous in executing the obligations imposed on national manufacturers,” she said, adding the Commission was calling a meeting with the national authorities.

While the European Union as a whole sets the emissions limits and defines the testing procedures, it is up to member states to enforce them and if necessary withdraw approval and fine manufacturers.

The European Commission has proposed a law to narrow the gap between car emissions registered in laboratory tests, and on the road, following the publication of Commission research showing a major discrepancy, especially for nitrogen oxides (NOX) associated with diesel cars.

‘Deepest apologies’

As the US government opened a criminal investigation against the German automaker, chief executive Martin Winterkorn offered his “deepest apologies” for the scandal, which threatens to tarnish Germany’s pristine industrial reputation.

“I am infinitely sorry that we have disappointed people’s trust. I offer my deepest apologies,” the 68-year-old executive said in a video statement, promising to be “ruthless” in getting to the bottom of the scandal.

“Our company was dishonest… in my German words – we have totally screwed up,” the chief executive of Volkswagen America, Michael Horn, said at an event in New York late Monday, according to video posted by CNBC.

BEUC, the European consumer organisation, has called for "a full investigation" into EU vehicle emissions and fuel consumption testing. Tests performed by BEUC's Italian member Altroconsumo on a Volkswagen Golf car showed fuel consumption levels were 50% higher than those advertised by the company. This means owners could be spending as much as €502 per year more on fuel consumption than what the company promises.

“We’ve been saying long before this scandal broke out that one of the problems in the EU, unlike in the US, is the absence of a surveillance system which would require independent on-the-road testing. The EU needs to implement such a system to restore trust amongst consumers in emissions and fuel consumption test programmes," said Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC.

“We also need to see a full investigation conducted by the European Commission into the use of these ‘defeat devises’ to see if car makers in Europe have also made use of them – and not just for air pollution but for fuel consumption testing too. It is essential that the EU starts work on developing a robust on-road vehicle test procedure which could do away with the need for laboratory fuel consumption and CO2 emissions testing. "

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