In an as-yet unreleased—officially, at any rate—letter, the EU’s industry and climate commissioners Miguel Cañete and Elzbieta Bienkowska outline evidence of widespread manipulation in the car industry of new emissions tests, known as the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), used to measure fuel consumption and carbon dioxid emissions from passenger cars, as well as their pollutant emissions.

The letter and what the commissioners call a ‘non-paper,’ were sent to the Austrian presidency of the EU, the chair of the European Parliament environment committee, and the lead MEP on the legislation for new car carbon dioxide targets. While the non-paper does not name any specific car manufacturers, the findings of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), which conducted the analysis that exposed the potential cheating, were based on 114 data sets.

The conclusion from industry analysts is that most, if not all, car manufacturers are involved. Since manipulating higher emissions under current tests would also lead to higher taxes being imposed, and, thus, a competitive disadvantage, industry analysts also point to collusion, potentially as part of a car industry-wide cartel.

The EU regulates carbon dioxide emissions from new cars through its carbon dioxide standards. Current targets, which are far more stringent than those set by the Obama administration that are currently under attack by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Trump, are for a target of 95g of carbond dioxide per km in 2021. In a 2017 proposal for 2025 standards, the EC decided not to propose a new 'grams per km' target, but rather a 15 percent cut compared to carmakers’ emissions in 2021. Thus, the EC has proposed—but not finalized (Germany is still resisting the regulations)—post-2020 carbon dioxide emission standards (the 2025 and 2030 targets) as a percentage emission reduction, compared to the average 2021 WLTP targets.

Currently, car and small-commercial vehicle emissions are based on the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) tests which were originally set in 1997, though they have been updated regularly since then. But evidence from the non-paper shows that the new WLTP emission values “officially declared by manufactures may be inflated without a corresponding increase of their NEDC emission values.” This means that the targets for 2025 and 2030 would be “weakened due to the inflated 2021 starting point. This would de facto reduce the level of ambition of the proposal.” In other words, any increase in WLTP values would increase the starting point for calculating future targets and undermine their effectiveness in reducing emissions.

The problem with effective and accurate measurement of emissions is because of the WLTP regulations' requirement that values are determined by comparing the manufacturers' results and the official supervised measurements by the relevant authority. WLTP regulations have safeguards to prevent manufacturers declaring too low values in order to comply, but not against them declaring values that are too high. The EC, in drafting the regulations, did not forsee that it would be in the interests of car manufacturers to inflate emissions results, until now.

Data uncovering falsified results was collected by the JRC and DG CLIMA. Emissions data declared by manufacturers exceeded official values by an average of 4.5 percent, up to a maximum of 13 percent. The non-paper concludes that manufacturers are “configuring their tests to achieve as low CO2 emissions as possible under NEDC and as high as possible under WLTP.”

Analysis of the emissions testing processes discloses that manufacturers are configuring tests to create inflated values by using vehicles with depleted batteries, which increases fuel consumption; by not starting and stopping vehicles during the test; and by shifting gears in a non-compliant way (WLTP regulations stipulate gear-changing procedures) to, again, increase emissions and fuel consumption. As a result of these manipulations, car manufacturers can weaken 2025 carbond dioxide targets by inflating carbod dioxide WLTP results, but still meet the current 2020/21 standards, which are based on the old NEDC tests.

As was hinted earlier, higher current carbon dioxide emissions will result in higher taxes being levied on a vehicle, which means that there is a risk for each car manufacturer that their cars will be taxed at a higher rate than their competitors.

Industry commentary

Sustainable transport policy NGO Transport and Environment, a consortium of non-profit national transport and environmental protection organisations, hypothesises in its press release and commentary on the non-paper that “to maintain a level playfield, there would need to have been collusion between all carmakers to inflate their carbon dioxide values.” It also notes that the EC is already investigating possible collusion between car manufacturers on a wide range of technology.

It cites a report in German magazine Der Spiegel that has evidence that German carmakers Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and Porsche may have colluded to fix the prices of diesel emissions treatment systems using 'industry committees.' Der Spiegel also reports that Volkswagen has “admitted to possible anti-competitive behaviour” in a letter it sent to cartel authorities on July 4.

“The only way this trick can work is if all carmakers work together,” said William Todts, executive director at Transport and Environment. “The Commission must extend the ongoing cartel enquiries to investigate whether there has been collusion here. Just fixing the baseline problem isn’t enough, there needs to be sanctions to end the industry’s endemic cheating and collusion.”

As a result of the JRC’s findings, the letter from the commissioners proposes the following actions to mitigate or prevent any further massaging of results:

“First, in the proposed Regulation on carbon dioxide emission standards for cars and vans which is currently under examination by the co-legislators, it should be made clear that the starting point for determining the future targets has to be calculated on the basis of ‘WLTP values measured’ in 2020 instead of the WLTP values declared by manufacturers. This issue should be dealt with in the context of the legislative procedure in order to maintain the level of ambition of the Commission proposal.

“Second, in order to increase transparency and verifiability, data on the WLTP measurements of vehicles registered in 2020 need to be systematically collected. Also, for the sake of the correlation procedure between the NEDC and the WLTP test, consistent implementation of the two test procedures needs to be ensured and closely monitored. For this, the Commission is considering amendments to the implementing acts under the current Regulations on cars and vans carbon dioxide emission performance standards, which set out the NEDC/WLTP correlation procedure.

“Third, the Commission will continue to support a correct implementation of the WLTP Regulation by Member States and monitor its proper enforcement. The abovementioned additional reporting and data verification will facilitate this. The Commission could also consider amending the WLTP Regulation, should this become necessary.”