Multiple failures of vehicle NOx testing flagged up in official report

17th June 2016

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Lucy Neville

A report on how the EU vehicle emissions testing regime works in practice has highlighted significant flaws and conflicts of interest.

The study, by researchers at Austrian consultancy Umweltbundesamt GmbH, investigated the discrepancy in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions between tests used to approve vehicle types required by EU law and real-world driving. It was commissioned by the European Parliament’s committee on emission measurements in the automotive sector, which was set up in December to scrutinise the issue after US regulators discovered that VW had fitted illegal devices to cheat on the tests.

Researchers found that the legal framework covering the testing system is so complicated that only expert teams, mainly from manufacturers, are able to gain an overall perspective of the regulation and its implementation in practice.

The complexity of technology in cars has resulted in many measurement regulations being specified or heavily influenced by industry, they found.

Manufacturers can choose in which of the 28 member states to have their vehicles tested, the researchers noted. They found that more than 300 technical services companies across the EU carry out the tests, some of which are part owned by vehicle manufacturers. Authorities regulating the tests do not have sufficient expertise or funding and do not interact effectively with companies carrying out the tests, they concluded.

Consequently, the quality of the process varies throughout the EU. Lack of compliance with the regulation is not enforced, the researchers said, noting that they did not find a single case in which a manufacturer had been sanctioned for infringing the regulations governing tests.

The researchers recommend a reformed testing regime, including ditching conformity factors. These allow vehicles to emit higher emissions in real-world driving situations than in the tests. Changes to the European test regime proposed by the European Commission and due to come into force in 2017 would still allow vehicles to emit 110% above the Euro 6 emissions limit from 2017, and 50% above this limit from 2020, they noted. Technology already exists to enable vehicles to meet emission limits in nearly all driving situations and conditions, they said.

Other recommendations include:

  • The testing should be commissioned by the national authorities responsible for the testing regime, not by the manufacturer.
  • Vehicle emissions should be re-tested by independent organisations, such as environmental agencies and independent laboratories, using real-driving conditions representative of normal vehicle use in Europe.
  • Manufacturers should publish test results for vehicles as well as vehicle test settings.
  • Sanctions should be imposed on manufacturers that fail to comply with EU emission legislation.

The researchers believe these changes would lead to manufacturers designing cars to perform efficiently under real driving conditions, rather than in tests. These measures would also reduce the need for member states and national authorities to acquire in-depth technical experience and knowledge, which is expensive, especially in the automotive sector where technology development is very fast, they said.

Julia Poliscanova, policy manager for clean vehicles and air quality at campaign group Transport and Environment welcomed the report’s recommendations, adding that the current process was ‘shrouded in conflict of interest and secrecy’ and that national testing authorities have only the interests of carmakers at heart.

‘The testing process must be urgently reformed and made more rigorous and transparent. EU oversight to ensure that national authorities do their work properly is urgently needed, as well as a comprehensive testing programme of vehicles in use. The current race to the bottom among national testing agencies must finally come to an end,’ she said.


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