‘We’ve been banging on about this for years,” says Nick Molden, a British expert who knows more about the scandal now engulfing the motor industry than almost anyone in the world.
Tucked away in a grimy corner of a multi-storey car park near the river Thames in Teddington is a white Skoda fitted with a weird contraption that makes it look as if arms are growing out of its back.
This is what his company uses to research and reveal the huge difference between what manufacturers say their cars will do and what really happens when you take them on the road.
“Suddenly, everybody wants to know,” he says.
That’s because of Volkswagen, of course. The German company lied to us, breaking the sacred trust between driver and car. You take a huge leap of faith when you get behind the wheel. We all do.
We trust the engine will start, the brakes won’t fail, the computer won’t shut down on the motorway and the car won’t stop, flip and crash. We don’t let ourselves think about how dangerous it is to go hurtling along in this metal cage in the company of bad drivers and drunks.
We blank that out, turn the key and go. Every driver, every day, trusts their life to their car and the people who made it, without thinking. Or rather we did.
Volkswagen has shattered that trust by admitting fiddling US laboratory tests to hide the fact that its diesel cars are pumping out up to 40 times more poison gases than the rules allow, and it now appears to be in meltdown. The boss has gone; the share value has dropped by a third and the company faces fines and law suits worth billions of dollars. On 26 September, Switzerland halted sales of all new diesel VWs, after suggestions that the tests had been manipulated in Europe as well. Now the British Government has launched its own investigation into whether other car-makers have lied to us.
“If widespread illegality is found among car manufacturers in Europe, then all bets are off. There will be such carnage,” says Mr Molden.
His company, Emission Analytics, has tested 90 per cent of the new cars currently being driven in Britain. “I’m sitting on a database of 1,000 results. Now this thing has blown up it puts us in the position of being better informed than anyone, anywhere.”
As the week went on, MPs demanded to know exactly when the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, knew that there might be a problem with cars in this country as well as America. Mr Molden knows the answer to that: it was this time last year, when his data was used in a report by the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT), warning the British Government of the huge disparity between results in the laboratory and on the road – and suggesting that some European car-makers might be manipulating the tests.
The research showed that one model – the Audi A8, built by a company owned by Volkswagen – was spewing out 22 times more nitrous oxide and nitrous dioxide than it should have. The average diesel car in Europe was exceeding the limit seven times over (although that has since fallen to four).
This is not a theoretical problem; it is real and hurting people. The gases inflame the lungs, triggering asthma and bronchitis and increasing the chances of heart attacks and strokes. They cause 23,500 premature deaths in Britain every year and make many more people ill.
But although the Government was warned, nothing much happened. Change can come only through the European Commission, which does not have the spot checks and huge fines they have in America.
Over there, though, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was already taking similar research by the ICCT very seriously and investigating Volkswagen.
“Let’s be clear about this: our company was dishonest. We have totally screwed up,” said Michael Horn, the chief of VW in the US after the EPA revealed what it had found.
Some models had been fitted with “defeat devices” that could sense when a car was in the laboratory and switch it to a test mode that kept emissions within the legal limits. When the test was over, the software switched the engine back to run normally, with better performance and more miles to the gallon – but pumping up to 40 times more nitrous oxide and nitrous dioxide pollution into the air than it was before.
Sales of new Audi A3, Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models have been halted in the US. Globally, 11 million cars are thought to be involved. The big question is whether VW was the only company doing this.
“I think there is a decent chance it is not just Volkswagen,” says Mr Molden, “although I don’t think illegal defeat devices are endemic across Europe. There may be one or two rogues, but I don’t think we will suddenly find that everyone is doing it and the whole automotive industry melts down.”
The Vehicle Certification Agency, which oversees the tests in the UK, says it may have to recall certain cars to be examined again, this time in road conditions. But Emissions Analytics already has that data, which is currently sold to manufacturers, dealers and What Car? magazine.
The equipment used to gather it is mounted on the back of the Skoda with what looks like a bike rack. Jane Thomas, the global sales manager, says, smiling: “It is a bike rack.” But there’s a pipe fitted over the exhaust which leads into a black box that measures the fumes. A second, flexible pipe curls round into the car like a thick brown tentacle, feeding a sample into another box on the back seat. This analyses the levels of the harmful so-called NOx gases.
“We have software that normalises the results, so that they compare directly with what is found in the laboratory tests.”
The crucial thing is that the system is portable and tests the car as it is driven on real roads – in this case the M25 and the streets of Teddington, where people often give the weird-looking contraption a second look or take a snap.
It’s all very different from the climate-controlled laboratories in which the tests are usually carried out. Manufacturers use custom-made cars fitted with slick tyres that work best on the test rollers, as well as ultra-expensive specialist fluids for the brakes and engines.
They are even allowed to take bits off to streamline the machine, such as the passenger wing mirror. These “golden vehicles” – as they are called in the trade – would be useless outside the lab.
Volkswagen found a way to cheat at these tests, which were already loaded in its favour. But the scandal has forced the authorities to think about an even bigger problem: the normal test results are also used to deceive us. They do not offer any kind of indication of how a new car will drive on the road.
Nobody at the Vehicle Certification Agency would talk to The Independent on Sunday, but deep on its website we found these words: “Because of the need to maintain strict comparability of the results achieved by the standard tests, they cannot be fully representative of real-life driving conditions.” And not all new models go into the lab anyway. “Only one representative car of each class needs to be tested.”
Britain is among the countries pushing for road tests to be used instead of lab tests on all new models from September 2017, and new registrations from 2018. The manufacturers say they need more time. Yet they continue to try to sell us new models using the results of the lab tests, offering higher levels of performance than we actually get.
All of this highlights how dysfunctional the relationship between the driver and the car has become.
Can you fix the engine? No, the electronics are too complicated. There’s more calculating power in your average saloon than was used to put a man on the Moon.
That thing you are driving is a changeling, a mysterious creation that looks much like a car always did but has now gone way beyond the understanding of most of us.
Can you sue, then, if you have been sold a lie? Lawyers have been deluged with requests for help. Jacqueline Young, head of group litigation at the law firm Slater & Gordon, believes Volkswagen owners may have a case if they paid a premium to buy a VW diesel, believing it was better for the environment.
“People relied on representations made by Volkswagen, potentially, that their car is green – and then it turns out that it isn’t. So their car has depreciated,” she says. “They have also paid more than for the petrol counterpart and they are entitled to cover their losses.”
However, other lawyers say there is a problem: the courts might demand proof that people bought VWs because they had low nitrous oxide and nitrous dioxide emissions, and that almost certainly isn’t the case.
“The information is not published into the public domain,” says Mr Molden. “Consumers were not buying cars on that basis. They were unaware that there was any pollution problem coming out of the tailpipe.”
Nobody much knew or cared about NOx gases before now. They were more likely to be worried about CO2 emissions and getting more miles for their money. On both counts, diesel still does better than any other fuel.
The scandal has exposed our own deeper double-thinking. We already knew the cars were killing us, poisoning the air and choking the planet. That’s just the price rich humans pay for being able to get to the shops more easily.
We told ourselves it was OK, because the rules made sure it was happening slowly. Somebody else would suffer, some time in the future. But now it turns out that the cars are killing us more quickly than they said they were. Air pollution was not falling as fast as it should have been and now we know why.
“It’s not the owner of the car who suffers a loss in this case,” Mr Molden says. “It’s the person who is walking down the path alongside the road, breathing in the nitrous oxide.”
The car-makers have lied to the drivers, but they are not the only ones who are hurt by this. We all are.Reuse content