New emissions tests needed (Image: Scott Olson/Getty)
Is time up for emissions cheats? As the car manufacturer Volkswagen tries to deal with the scandal engulfing it, a new testing regime could prevent a repeat in the future.
Volkswagen has been accused of using a software cheat to detect when a car is undergoing emissions tests in the US and temporarily alter the engine’s settings to ensure it passed. Out on the road, however, emissions of nitrogen oxides were up to 35 times higher. More than 11 million cars worldwide may have been fitted with the software, the carmaker has said.
But even without deliberate cheating, real-world carof nitrogen oxides are typically around 7 times higher than those measured in lab tests, which involve driving a car on a “treadmill” in a set pattern. Emissions of other pollutants, including particulates and carbon dioxide, are also higher.
This is why the European Union is already planning to introduce “real-world” testing from 2017. Reducing nitrogen oxides matters because high levels increase the risk of respiratory and heart diseases, and lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths every year in the UK alone.
Such tests already exist for heavy-duty vehicles as a result of a similar scandal in the US. In the 1990s, the US Environmental Protection Agency sued a number of heavy-duty diesel engine makers, accusing them of cheating in the same way as Volkswagen.
The companies involved denied the claim, but the case led to the introduction of in-use emissions testing for heavy vehicles, where the emissions of a few vehicles are measured during normal use with the help of portable measuring equipment.
These tests have been controversial, though, because emissions can vary greatly depending on conditions: how hilly a route is, how fast a driver accelerates – even how hot it is. The EU has instead introduced Realistic Driving Emissions tests for heavy vehicles, which take place on roads but follow a predetermined pattern to make them more comparable.
From 2017, subject to member state approval, new cars in the EU will undergo similar tests. One reason this hasn’t happened before is simply that the equipment was too large and bulky. “Even two years ago it was much bigger,” says Phil Stones of the Millbrook vehicle testing facility in the UK. “You couldn’t fit it in a car.”
But the precise requirements of these tests are still being thrashed out. One concern is that the specified test conditions will be too narrow, making them less realistic. Another is that the plan is to allow real-world emissions to exceed lab emission standards by a yet-to-be-agreed factor.
The, the non-profit group whose work first revealed the issues with some Volkswagen cars, says that some vehicles already meet the strict new Euro 6 emissions standards for nitrogen oxides in real-world tests without any fudge factor. What’s more, it points out that under these plans, measurements of CO2 emissions and fuel consumption will still be based only on lab tests.
It remains to be seen whether the Volkswagen revelations are just the tip of the iceberg. Have other car makers used similar tricks, for example?
The bigger picture, though, is that regulations have become steadily stricter over the past few decades, and engines ever cleaner. Emissions of most health-damaging substances have been cut by well over 90 per cent since the 1970s – at least, when engines are run as designed. The challenge now is to ensure cars comply with the regulations in the real world, and to replace the many old, highly polluting vehicles.
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