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VW vehicle emissions: insight into the scandal

Exhaust pipeThe VW emissions scandal has prompted a Europe-wide overhaul of vehicle testing, but will it be enough?

How polluting is my car? That's a question many have been asking since VW admitted cheating on vehicle emission tests in the USA back in 2015. Retired vehicle test engineer and Stafford resident Ted Foreman acted as an advisor to the BBC's Panorama programme investigating whether VW was also deceiving the authorities here in Europe. In a talk to Stafford's U3A 'What on Earth' group, he recently told of his involvement in making the programme, and his role as special advisor to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. And it was a forthright, no-holds-barred account.

'Testing the wrong things in the wrong way'

His anger stems from the fact that as a former employee of the Department for Transport, he was involved some years ago in setting up the current procedures for emissions testing in the EU. But his (unpaid) collaboration with the BBC Transport Correspondent Richard Westcott and Panorama team uncovered damning evidence of how these so-called 'defeat devices' have undermined the current vehicle testing regime in Europe as well as the States. As Ted explained, "We have been testing the wrong things in the wrong way for a Ted foremanlong time.'

In September 2015, following a tip-off from a German-based pressure group, the International Council for Clean Transport (ICCT), the US Environment Protection Agency found that diesel-engined VW vehicles could detect when they were being tested and reduce their emissions during the test to conform to emissions standards. VW subsequently admitted that these 'defeat devices' - consisting of special computer software in the engine control unit (ECU) - had been fitted to 11 million diesel cars worldwide since 2009, including 1.2 million in the UK. Certain models of other VW brands were also affected, including Audi and Porsche.

Ted Foreman was enlisted by BBC's Panorama programme to investigate the impact of so-called 'cheat devices' on vehicle emissions. He was shocked by the results.

How to cheat on emissions

What effect do these devices actually have? In November 2015 Ted was contacted by the Panorama team to help examine this issue by conducting an emissions test of their own. The programme makers had met with blank refusals from UK test facilities, and were forced to go to Prague in the Czech Republic for an approved facility that would oblige. A VW Passat was bought from a VW showroom, and tested according to the standard protocol. Emissions were well within limits. But when the test was repeated with changes to the acceleration and braking that took it outside the standard parameters, the device failed to recognize it was a test, and changed the engine management back to normal: emissions increased dramatically. For example, nitrogen oxide gases (NOx) from the exhaust went from just 167 mg/km under the 'standard test' to 435 mg/km under 'normal' engine mode. See VW cars can also cheat European emissions tests.

New test regime

The results demonstrate that the European system of vehicle testing needs to change radically to meet the challenges of the electronic gadgetry on modern cars, and to move out of the laboratory to testing vehicles on the road. The European Commission is working on introducing a new 'Real Driving Emissions' test in 2017, and Ted urged that more resources be put into emissions testing, including better training of test engineers.

The ICCT reports that the emissions on the road can be over 30% greater than under laboratory conditions. Obviously this has immense implications for consumers and the environment, as well as vehicle manufacturers. For example, vehicle NOx emisisons are responsible for respiratory diseases, and increase the risk of asthma attacks. The results also cast doubt on the reliability of fuel consumption figures given by VW and other manufacturers, and hence on actual carbon emissions. These factors are all highly significant when consumers decide which vehicle to buy.

Ted was scathing about the feeble response of European governments to the VW scandal, but praised the working of the UK Parliament's Transport Select Committee, for which he has provided technical briefings. The committe have been incisive and robust iin quizzing VW representatives, and a flavour of this can be gleaned from reports of proceedings on the Parliament website. Not so the DfT, which abandoned in-service emission testing in 2010 to save money! It has now been reinstated in the wake of the scandal!