Give the manufacturers a break!

smog
St Pauls Cathedral in London buried under a pall of smog.

Umweltbelastung

Ever since the “dieselgate” story broke, the world’s media have delighted in hounding car manufacturers, seizing on every snippet of news touching on emissions or fuel economy and seeking to turn it into yet another stick to beat the industry with.

The latest media moans allege that manufacturers are deliberately switching off emissions controls when it is cold, not to mention trumpeting loudly that all buyers of diesels should receive compensation for emissions and fuel economy shortfalls.

What a load of claptrap!

Lets have some facts, for once. Yes, Volkswagen were naughty to effectively cheat the Government emissions test with their software which reduced emissions when it detected that the car was undergoing a formal emissions test. But – and it’s a big but – what gets overlooked in all of this is just how difficult it is to comply with the formal emissions test, not least because of its entirely artificial test conditions and incredibly short duration.

That dilutes the manufacturers efforts, because they need to deal with not just one but two emissions challenges. Firstly, complying with that Government-mandated test, and secondly, trying to make the vehicle as emissions-friendly as possible in the real world. Given that the latter is what really matters to the environment, and the customer, is it any wonder that manufacturers try everything in the book to pass the formal test, given it’s irrelevance to everything except, of course, gaining a legal approval to sell that particular model?

Inevitably, any test pass will have been achieved purely under the test conditions specified by the law, and particularly under the specified temperature conditions. Some emissions controls will doubtless be switched off at temperatures less than this, an action admitted to by an unwary manufacturers representative, and seized on with glee by the media, totally misunderstanding the issue. The reality is that to work correctly, many vital emissions controls, particularly SCR  or Adblue systems, must be at a pretty high temperature to work properly. In other words the engine has to be at working temperature. If the engine is too cold and the SCR system is still operating, nasty things happen – believe me, I’ve been there! So an SCR system will almost certainly be switched off until the engine reaches working temperature, meaning that emissions are higher when the car is started from cold. However, within the limits of current technology, little or nothing can be done about that. That has absolutely nothing to do with the manufacturer trying to cheat or gain competitive advantage, it’s simply down to the laws of physics!

….there can be little doubt that other manufacturers will have done similar things…

I say “manufacturers” rather than VW, for there can be little doubt that other manufacturers, whilst they may not have been quite as hard-nosed as VW appear to have been, will have done similar things to get their vehicles through the formal test. In most if not all cases, the tweaks will have been done by engineers tasked specifically with achieving that legislative compliance, their senior management being totally unaware of, and indeed unable to comprehend the level of technical detail involved in achieving that compliance.

EU emissions test

a Fiat 500 undergoing an EU Emissions test. Photo: Mike Dotta / Shutterstock

Indeed, given the engineer’s incredible technological challenge of blending thermodynamics, chemical engineering, fluid flow and a myriad of other disciplines to achieve test success, it is highly doubtful whether, with the best will in the world, senior company staff even understood in general terms the challenges faced by their underlings. Just to put the mandated emissions levels into some kind of perspective, particle emissions created by the car’s tyres passing over the road surface are now higher than those allowed to be emitted from its exhaust!

So even accepting that VW were remiss in their action, have they really harmed anyone to the extent that compensation is required as a result of their action? I don’t think so, for one second, and let me spell out why.

Consumer organisations and others are screaming that VW customers have lost out by buying cars whose emissions and fuel consumption were worse than expected. Rubbish! For a start, any cost implications for emissions are directly linked to such things as Road Fund licence cost and Company Car tax. Any car which “cheated” its way to an artificially low emissions figure therefore benefited its driver by saving him or her money against the higher emissions rating which would otherwise have been applied.

…fuel is actually an insignificant part of a car’s running costs…

And as regards extra fuel costs, the media hysteria entirely fails to take into account that the cost of fuel is, for most mass-market motors, actually a fairly insignificant part of the car’s running costs. The big hit, on new cars anyway, comes from depreciation, which at the minimum is a couple of thousand pounds a year, and probably much more. Contrast that with your fuel consumption being say 5 miles a gallon worse than you had expected. Over the course of a year’s typical annual driving, that would run up an unexpected extra bill of all of £150 – peanuts compared to the depreciation cost!

Should VW nevertheless compensate customers for this perceived £150 a year extra cost? Absolutely not, and for a reason which the media have chosen to overlook in their recent rants following publication of the test results of real-world on-road testing of emissions and fuel consumption. Their headline figures voice their rightful indignation that many models have emissions ten or even fifteen times above the allowable Government limit, quietly overlooking the fact that the lowest polluting car tested – at less than twice the legal limit – was none other than the much maligned 2 litre diesel VW Golf – exactly the same model which sparked off the dieselgate story originally.

Maybe its time for downtrodden Volkswagen to push back against their critics!

So, far from being the disgustingly dirty villain of today’s roads, it seems that actually the Golf  is one of the cleanest diesels you can buy in real-world use. Maybe it’s time for downtrodden Volkswagen to push back against their critics!

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