Written by Maria Juul,
Since September 2015, when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that Volkswagen had installed illegal software in some of its diesel cars, to modify emissions of certain air pollutants, vehicle emissions have been high on the agenda. The European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) has followed the case closely and published several analyses on the issue.
The Volkswagen Group (VW) installed illegal emissions software on 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide, allowing them to produce up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than allowed. The software, considered a ‘defeat device’ under US law, senses when the car is being tested and activates certain pollution-control devices to reduce tailpipe emissions. However, on the road, the emissions control systems are reduced or switched off, resulting in much higher emissions than claimed by VW. Some other car manufacturers are also suspected of installing defeat devices.
Several countries (such as Germany, France and the UK) around the globe have opened more general investigations on whether car manufacturers respect vehicle emission limits on the road, as opposed to under test conditions. VW has been the subject of hundreds of legal actions worldwide brought by consumers, investors, non-governmental organisations and government agencies. An EPRS briefing provides a non-exhaustive overview of the range of these actions.
An EPRS short analysis from October 2015 gives an overview of NOx impact on health and the environment, and explains how air pollutant emissions from vehicles are controlled in the EU and the USA. It adds that besides air pollutant emissions, the VW case has also exposed the discrepancies between type-approval (under laboratory conditions) and on-road CO2 emissions from vehicles.
What has the EU done in response to the emissions cheating case?
In October 2015, the Parliament adopted a resolution on emission measurements in the automotive sector, in which it ‘strongly condemns any fraud by automobile manufacturers’. In December 2015, the Parliament decided to set up a Committee of Inquiry (EMIS) to investigate alleged contraventions and maladministration in relation to emission measurements in the automotive sector. The EMIS Committee will present an interim report within six months and a final one within twelve months of starting its work in March 2016. To find out more about Parliament’s investigative powers, read the EPRS briefing on ‘Committees of inquiry and special committees’.
In January 2016, as part of preparations from previous years but also in response to the VW emissions case, the European Commission proposed to change the current type-approval system for motor vehicles in the EU (see Commission proposal for a Regulation on the approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles). Under current rules, national authorities are solely responsible for certifying that a vehicle meets all requirements to be placed on the market and for controlling carmakers’ compliance with EU law. The Commission proposes to strengthen the quality and independence of technical tests and introduce EU oversight on the type-approval process. This EPRS briefing gives more details on the current system as well as on the changes the new proposal would bring. EPRS has also analysed the Impact Assessment accompanying the Commission proposal.
The Commission has also presented a draft implementing regulation on new tests that better reflect real on-road emissions but planned temporarily to raise NOx emission limits for diesel cars. The European Parliament’ Environment Committee wanted initially to veto this plan but the plenary finally rejected the veto. To find out more about this implementing regulation and see why some members of the Parliament objected the plan, read the EPRS at the glance on ‘Measuring on-road air pollution from cars’ or listen to our podcast on the same topic.
More details and information sources on the subject are available in EPRS previous blogpost on ‘Emissions in the automotive sector’.