The VW clever computers helped engines pass the US exhaust tests. Now VW has apologised and thought better of such intelligent engineering, recognising that passing the tests was only meant to be an indicator of how a vehicle would perform when being driven on normal roads.
This tussle between manufacturer and regulator is one of many that occur when regulators demand certain performance, and when there are varying ways of conforming to the letter of the law. Many think companies should observe the sprit of the test and rules. Others blame the regulator for failing to invent a test which measures what they are really interested in.
This one, however, matters more than many for two big reasons. The first is VW is one of the world’s two largest motor manufacturers, accounting for more than 10 m vehicles out of a total world production of 90 million last year. VW exhausts have quite an impact on the world. The second is the output from car exhausts is of more concern to green groups than practically any other source of carbon dioxide and pollutants, as green lobbyists are especially critical of personal transport whilst being less angry about home systems for heating ,cooking and washing that also use energy and produce pollutants.
The origins of this current controversy lie in the growing success of the global warming movement in the 1990s. They made regulators and lawmakers concentrate on carbon dioxide rather than pollutants. The diesel industry came up with good ways of cutting carbon dioxide output from vehicle engines, and in the process offered the motorist something he or she wanted – greater fuel efficiency. When I switched from petrol to diesel I gained more than a third in fuel economy from the switch. It was known at the time that older or dirtier diesels produced more pollutants including particulates, NOx and SOx. The Regulators set ever tougher standards to cut down these adverse side effects of going for the more fuel efficient diesel. The industry responded with much cleaner diesel engines.
Today the EU, governments and regulators have some explaining to do. Did they do enough when they adopted aggressive carbon dioxide targets to police pollutants from engines? Did they set the right tests to make sure the vehicles performed as they needed? Can they now assure us they have in place the right tests, so when we buy a modern diesel we know for sure that it does achieve the high standards we expect in reducing or eliminating pollutants out of the back? And have they also set the right tests and made the right demands of petrol engines?
During this debate it might also be a good idea to look at domestic heating boilers and systems, and to remember just how much pollution still comes out of our power stations. Its total pollution which matters most. Regulators need to get a grip, and to see the volumes in proportion to the totals.