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Volkswagen Not Alone in Flouting Pollution Limits

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The Globe and Mail

By JACK EWING

JUNE 9, 2016

BERLIN — One diesel car tested by the German government emitted more than 12 times as much poisonous nitrogen oxide as allowed. Another was five times over the limit, and yet another six times over.

The cars were not produced by Volkswagen, the company at the center of a widespread emissions scandal. They were a Jeep, a General Motors sedan and a Mercedes-Benz.

A growing stack of recent government and private studies has made increasingly clear that Volkswagen was hardly the only company to flout pollution limits. While Volkswagen illegally manipulated test results, the other carmakers in Europe just took advantage of a loophole that allows them to throttle down emissions controls whenever there is risk of engine damage — which in some cases is nearly all the time.

Such information has awakened Europeans to the real environmental cost of diesel, with far-reaching reputational and financial consequences for the auto industry. Companies are now on the defensive in their core diesel market of Europe, as environmental groups push for tougher regulations, authorities haul auto executives before hearings and politicians call for an end to favorable fuel taxes.

“It’s just a question of who’s cheating legally and who’s cheating illegally,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen who follows the auto industry. “They’re all bad.”

In an attempt at damage control, the German government this week submitted a proposal to European Union transport ministers that would narrow, though not close, the loophole that allows carmakers to deactivate emissions equipment to protect the engine. Carmakers would be allowed to take advantage of the exception only if they had already deployed the best emissions control technology available.

Environmental activists have complained for years that nitrogen oxide levels in major cities like Rome, Paris or Stuttgart were much higher than they should be because of diesel emissions, with grave effects on human health. Now the activists feel vindicated.

“It’s not just fraud — it’s physical assault,” said Axel Friedrich, a former official in the Umweltbundesamt, the German equivalent of the E.P.A. Mr. Friedrich was a co-founder of the International Council on Clean Transportation, which commissioned the tests that exposed Volkswagen’s cheating.

Tighter limits on tailpipe emissions and more rigorous testing, being debated in Brussels or in some cases already agreed to, will raise the cost of cars with diesel motors. Diesel vehicles produce far more nitrogen oxides than gasoline cars and require more emissions equipment.

Price-conscious buyers of small cars may decide diesel is no longer worth paying more. If so, companies like Fiat Chrysler, Renault and Volkswagen would suffer most. Profits on small cars already are slim.

“The biggest challenge will be emissions treatment for small cars, simply because of the cost,” said Matthias Wissmann, a former German transport minister who is the president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry.

The changing diesel calculus is a potentially significant blow to carmakers in Europe. Because of fuel subsidies, diesels account for nearly half of all cars on European roads. Elsewhere, diesel’s overall market share ranges from zero to minuscule.

Diesels are also a crucial source of profits for automakers, particularly for luxury and sport utility vehicles that use more fuel. More than two-thirds of the cars sold by Audi and BMW in Europe are diesels.

Diesel’s market share in Europe has held steady since the Volkswagen scandal broke in September. But there are tentative signs that some Europeans are falling out of love with diesel.

10vwdiesel2-master315.jpg

Axel Friedrich in his car, a Fiat 500.

The share of diesels sold in Germany by BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, including its Porsche and Audi units, fell 3 percent in the first four months of 2016 compared with the same period of 2015, according to figures compiled by Mr. Dudenhöffer. Germany is the largest market for diesel cars in the world, and its carmakers are particularly vulnerable to a slowdown.

In Europe, Volkswagen led the way in civilizing diesel for mass-market passenger cars in the 1990s. The company produced engines that were less noisy and less smelly than diesels of old, yet offered excellent acceleration and fuel economy.

Volkswagen used diesel as a competitive advantage against rivals like Toyota or General Motors’ Opel, which were slower to invest in diesel. “The market shares over the years changed drastically, mostly on the back of diesel,” said David J. Herman, the former chairman of Opel.

Now that diesel is under attack, German carmakers are being forced to put more emphasis on hybrid vehicles, a technology pioneered by Toyota. Volkswagen has promised to invest in clean technologies as part of a legal settlement in the United States, though the size of the investment and other details are still being determined.

Volkswagen remains the company hurt most by the diesel fallout. Only Volkswagen made “clean diesel” the focal point of its marketing in the United States. The diesel push exposed the company to stricter American government regulations and enforcement, and a judicial system more accommodating to class-action lawsuits by customers.

Rivals like Daimler, G.M. and Fiat Chrysler sell diesels in the United States but in much smaller numbers. However, Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, is also in the cross hairs of federal enforcers. It has said it is conducting an internal investigation in response to questions from the Department of Justice about its emissions in the United States.

Recent studies by the German and British governments found no proof that any carmakers other than Volkswagen had equipped cars with illegal software intended to fool emissions tests.

The other manufacturers simply took advantage of rules allowing them to reduce emissions controls to protect the engine under certain conditions, such as colder weather. The carmakers argued that lower temperatures could cause condensation and a buildup of soot in a major component of the emissions control system, causing it to fail.

In the case of a Jeep Cherokee sold in Europe by Fiat Chrysler, according to the German government study, “colder weather” meant temperatures as high as 20 degrees Celsius, or about 68 degrees Fahrenheit — not exactly arctic conditions.

The Jeep emitted more than 12 times as much nitrogen oxide on the road as allowed, according to the German study, which provoked an indignant response from Italy. The Italian minister of transport, Graziano Delrio, said the government’s own tests showed Fiats were legal and that Germany had no standing to maintain otherwise. Fiat Chrysler declined to comment.

The German study also found that an Insignia sedan made by G.M.’s Opel unit, a car similar to the Buick LaCrosse sold in the United States, emitted more than five times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide. A Mercedes van was six times over the limit.

A British government study of about 40 cars found that they spewed an average of six times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide under normal driving conditions.

Opel and Mercedes said in statements that their vehicles complied with regulations but that, nevertheless, they were acting to improve the performance of emissions equipment.

More embarrassment could lie ahead for the carmakers. Hearings on diesel are underway in the European Parliament. In Germany, opposition parties in Parliament are convening a special committee that has the power to call government officials and auto executives.

“It won’t just be about Volkswagen,” said Oliver Krischer, deputy chief of the Green Party in Parliament, one of the parties that called for the committee. “It will also deal with negligence of the whole auto industry.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/10/business/international/volkswagen-not-alone-in-flouting-pollution-limits.html?_r=0

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This article is just overall poorly researched. The problem with VW wasn't that they exceeded emissions under some circumstances. It's that they intentionally gamed the tests. When taking the tests, the car would pass emissions, because it detected that the car was being tested. Later, under similar conditions in the real world, the cars would emit substantially more NOx, in some cases as much as 40x the amount as in testing.

VW cheated.

These other cars, that can be made to emit more than the "legal amount"? It's crap. There is no legal amount. You need to be able to pass the test, which prescribes everything about the circumstances under which emissions are measured. That's the legal limit. If I take a Prius, and drive it around a racetrack as fast as possible, it'll emit massive amounts more pollution than driving it around normally. That's the whole point of having specific test conditions in which to measure emissions.

Now, you may argue that the test should be better, or more exhaustive, or whatever, but "I found a car that emits more than I think it should when driven under nebulous and undefined conditions" is not the same as "This car cheated on it's emissions tests", which is exactly what VW did.

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