Think the emissions scandal is all about Volkswagen? Think again.

The Volkswagen emission scandal is rocking the corporate world and it’s just the beginning. The CEO is gone, the workforce shamed and Germany’s flagship industry is a national embarrassment. But if you think it’s all about Volkswagen, think again, because it seems the system has been open to gaming by vehicle manufacturers for years.

Dodgy Test Regime

A new article from the The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) exposes systemic flaws in the European vehicle testing regime. Poor regulatory oversight allows vehicle manufacturers to exploit tolerances in vehicle test procedures with impunity. By showing better fuel consumption and emissions ratings, the market rewards them as consumers vote with their wallets to save fuel costs and reduce environmental impacts. It results in a perverse incentive for manufacturers to spend as much of their efforts perfecting the test as they do improving efficiency of the vehicle itself.

Vehicles are tested in laboratories and on special test tracks to assess their various performance characteristics, including fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, to show the vehicle meets legislated minimum performance standards and support marketing claims. Volkswagen vehicles are now found to be compliant under test conditions but not in ordinary use, with software installed to let the vehicle pass the test yet operate in service with much higher emissions.

Clearly illegal and unethical, Volkswagen is deservedly copping the brunt right now, but the scandal reveals a culture among vehicle manufacturers who can potentially ‘game’ a system that has holes in it so great you could drive a B-Double truck through, completely legally of course. The integrity of all European vehicle fuel consumption and emissions claims are now in doubt because benchmarks can be set on test tracks with downhill slopes with favourable cambers to improve performance and specially-prepared tyres hardened in an oven beforehand to provide the least rolling resistance during the test. Hardly real-world driving conditions. You can’t blame manufacturers for using the most economical drivers, tuning vehicles to suit a track of their choosing and any other methods to give the best test score, because the score influences sales. The point is, however, vehicles cannot repeat these high standards when used by you and me on public roads.

We don’t accept wind-assisted track and field times for world athletics records because it’s a not a true measure of human capability. Likewise, we shouldn’t accept these vehicle performance figures.

The ICCT found the gap between test figures and real-world in service performance is ‘ever-growing’ – from 10% in 2002, to 35% in 2014 and is on track to be 49% by 2020. What confidence can the public – private consumers and businesses alike – have in a score that could be 50% out?

Implications for Australia

Australians are vehicle technology takers, relying on the standards of Europe, USA and Japan to drive fuel and emissions efficiency improvements. Without our own minimum fuel efficiency standards we become a dumping ground for the world’s noncompliant vehicles. With Canada, China, Brazil and Mexico implementing their own minimum fuel efficiency standards, this gap is growing too. As an island continent there’s no secondary market for used vehicles, so the impacts of inferior fuel and emissions performance of “hand-me-down” technology will be felt in Australia for years.

Data is the key constraint in this aspect of the road vehicle industry. People rely on the integrity of performance claims in sales brochures, and expect the protection of regulatory oversight. Buyers of passenger cars can check the Green Vehicle Guide to compare vehicles, yet the ICCT suggests green vehicle ratings are based on desktop review of now dubious test calculations.

Trucking companies already have difficulty believing the fuel efficiency claims of manufacturers because Australian conditions are so different to the test tracks of Europe and America, so large transporters invest in their own R&D by testing trucks themselves before purchase because they know the value of getting their fuel figures right before committing to substantial investments with huge running costs over a truck’s life driven by fuel usage and volatile fuel prices.

Small and medium transport companies may not have the resources or skills to test new vehicles properly before buying. There’s no green vehicle guide for heavy vehicles. The closest offering is the NSW government’s Green Trucks Partnership which brings together vehicle users and manufacturers to test various fuel saving technologies in real-life Australian applications with independent reporting on benefits achieved against claims made by technology proponents. The information is shared in case studies on the Green Trucks website.

Australia needs its own standards

Transport is the second largest user of energy in the Australian economy after electricity and is growing faster. Introducing minimum fuel efficiency standards is one of the easiest, cheapest and most effective ways we can save energy costs, reduce carbon and air pollution emissions, and improve fuel security. Australia must take charge of its destiny and develop its own minimum fuel efficiency standards for light and heavy road vehicles. We can learn from Europe’s woes and stringently test vehicles prior to service then follow the USA’s lead and actually test each vehicle type once in service to validate real world performance. Regulation without enforcement provides only a false sense of security and blind faith in marketing claims which, as Volkswagen has shown, fail under scrutiny.

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