European Emission Regulations - A Matter of Interpretation

Colin Pawsey

Across the globe, whether involved in the automotive industry or not, almost everyone is aware of the scandal still engulfing the sector in regards of diesel vehicles and their harmful emissions. If the issues were bubbling under the surface for years, they have been truly exposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency which accused VW of using ‘cheat devices’ to falsify emission tests in 2015.

The issues in Europe however are far more complex and cross over into political and economic arenas in respect of how regulations are drafted, how they are implemented and how they are interpreted. The EU has successfully increased legislation on passenger car emissions over the course of the last 20-25 years, with tightening regulations on the amount of CO2, NOx, and PM that vehicles are allowed to emit, but the way in which testing and certification is carried out is coming under intense scrutiny.

Concerns from environmental groups focus on the emission of NOx from diesel engines - and with diesel accounting for 50% of all new vehicles sold in Europe, it is potentially a huge problem. While US standards on NOx are much more stringent - ultimately leading to VW’s employment of cheat devices - the regulations in Europe are less demanding, and critics point to sufficient ‘loopholes’ within legislation which allow manufacturers to report ‘artificial’ figures in terms of fuel consumption and emissions. So much so that cheat devices would not be necessary, and car makers do not need to ‘break the rules’ in order to sell vehicles which could be producing far higher levels of NOx than advertised.

Clean diesel has never been under more threat in Europe, but is it an industry issue or a political one? And will the new Real Driving Emission tests slated for 2017 and beyond solve the problem?

Real Driving Emissions test on a Mazda - ©LSDSL - wikipedia

Real Driving Emissions test on a Mazda - ©LSDSL - wikipedia

VW Scandal Brings Emission Regulations into Spotlight

When scandal broke in September 2015 the EPA revealed that several VW and Audi vehicles were fitted with software that only switched on NOx-reduction technology when faced with the highly predictable demands seen under test conditions. To recap, NOx emissions for a fleet of cars in the US is 0.07g/m or 0.04g/km, but the vehicles tested by the regulators demonstrated that under normal conditions they were up to 40 times over this limit. The EPA ordered VW to recall around half a million cars in the US, and the manufacturer quickly admitted that in 11 million vehicles worldwide there were “noticeable deviations” in the NOx emissions seen in testing and real-world use. VW is still suffering from the fallout and is currently negotiating fixes as well as compensation across the Atlantic.

In Europe the limits for NOx emissions are far less demanding, as the EU focuses on fuel efficiency and carbon emissions - where it’s regulations are among the most stringent in the world - but it is the way in which these regulations are imposed that comes under increasing fire. Indeed, according to green pressure group Transport & Environment (T&E), the gulf between stated fuel efficiency figures (and therefore carbon emissions) and those achieved by an average driver, has grown to 40% in recent years from an average of 10% in 2001.

Current and Future EU Emission Regulations

EU regulations state that maximum emissions of NOx from a EURO 5 car should be no more than 180mg/km, with this limit set to reduce to 80mg/km for EURO 6 vehicles. The new targets were set to be introduced in 2017, although there is debate about how realistic it is for manufacturers to meet such limits and the industry has lobbied for a ‘phase-in’ period. CO2 emissions are expected to be reduced to 95g/km as a fleet car average by 2021.

Figures from the International Council on Clean Transportation suggest that real-world emissions for Euro 6 diesel cars are on average 7 times higher than the regulated limits, at approximately 560mg/km. Rigorous vehicle testing by the German government in the wake of the VW scandal also confirmed that exceeding emission limits is an industry-wide problem and not restricted just to vehicles fitted with defeat devices.

The introduction of the World Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP) intended for 2017, should help to improve the current out-dated procedures which are based on the New European Drive Cycle (NEDC). Portable Emissions Measurement Systems (PEMS) will also allow on-road testing and give a better picture of real-world conditions.


Circumnavigating Legislation

Such changes can only have an impact if legislation is correctly enforced, and the current regulations leave considerable room for manoeuvre.

The ICCT claims that the NEDC testing procedure includes a number of regulatory loopholes that are all too often exploited by vehicle manufacturers. Various strategies to present test results in the best light can be employed, such as selecting tyres with particularly low rolling resistance, hardening them in ovens and overinflating them prior to testing. Cars can be modified to be as frugal as possible to improve fuel efficiency and therefore CO2 emissions, with components such as sound systems left out to reduce weight. Wing mirrors can be removed and cracks between panels taped up to reduce drag; special lubricants have been used to make engines run more smoothly, and alternators disconnected to provide greater power to the wheels. In terms of NOx emissions specifically, exhaust aftertreatment systems are shut off in conditions outside of those found in test procedures. These include at ambient temperatures below 20 degrees and above 30 degrees and at speeds above 145km/h. This is allowable under legislation to protect the engine or aftertreatment system against damage.

The integrity of testing has also come under fire as the companies that carry out laboratory and track tests are commercial enterprises, certified by national governments. Manufacturers are free to choose between these organisations when seeking type-approval for new vehicle models, and although such companies are required to test in the laboratory and on the track - methods which themselves are considered unrealistic - they are also in direct competition for business. This creates something of a conflict of interest and Type Approval Authorities have been accused of ‘optimising’ test procedures to win customers.

Furthermore once type-approval has been obtained there is no further testing by independent parties to ensure figures are correct. Compare this to the American system whereby the EPA acquires vehicles at random for testing later on, with those found not to live up to claims subject to substantial fines.

Political and Economic Influence

The automotive sector provides 12 million jobs in the EU and accounts for 4% of the EU’s GDP. It also accounts for around 7% of Europe’s manufacturing jobs and is vital to upstream industries such as steel, chemicals and textiles, as well as downstream industries such as ICT, repair and mobility services.

The political argument at the moment centres on the introduction of new legislation. The European Automobile Manufacturer’s Association (ACEA) had argued that manufacturers would be unable to meet 2020 diesel emission targets, and requested a “conformity factor” of 1.7, whereby vehicles given Euro 6 status would be allowed to emit 0.136g/km of NOx from 2020, with an upper limit of 0.220g/km acceptable in the three-year interim period from 2017. The European commission had appeared ready to back that petition and allow NOx emissions of 0.16g/km from 2019 and 0.12g/km after 2021, but the European Parliament rejected those plans in December 2015.

The European Commission had justified its stance due to technical uncertainties around the use of PEMS to be used as part of the new test procedures, but MEP’s concluded that the average error of measurement with PEMS stood at around 18.75% not the 110% that the automotive industry claimed.

The decision was overturned by a vote in the European Council in February 2016, and the relaxed limits for 2019 and 2021 were put back on the table amidst legislative proposals for a major overhaul of the EU type-approval framework.

The Future for the Automotive Industry

The European Commission laid out at the end of January 2016 its intention for regulation of the approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles to complement the introduction of more robust emissions testing procedures. The proposal for legislation aim to achieve three objectives:

To reinforce the independence and quality of testing that allows cars to be placed on the market. This includes breaking the financial links between manufacturers and technical services (which are currently paid directly by OEM’s) to avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest; while introducing more stringent performance criteria for technical services which will be regularly and independently audited.

To introduce an effective market surveillance system to control the conformity of cars already in circulation. This is to include carrying out spot-checks on cars already on the market to ensure non-compliance is detected at an early stage, and that immediate and robust remedial action is taken.

To reinforce the type-approval system with greater European oversight. This will give the Commission the power to suspend, restrict or withdraw the designation of technical services that are underperforming or too lax in applying the law. The Commission will also be able to carry out ex-post verification testing, and if necessary, initiate recalls.


Diesel emission regulation is a highly contestable subject in Europe and the implementation of new real-driving test procedures can go a long way towards improving the nature of type-approval certification. Alongside however, there must be much more robust legislation to ensure that testing is carried out as accurately as possible and figures for new vehicles can be confirmed as opposed to just nominal.

Manufacturers have consistently made it known that targets for 2020 will be difficult to achieve from a technological and economic standpoint, and it is coming to light that figures for new vehicles over the years have been optimistic at best, fabricated at worst. There needs to be frank discussion about realistic limits and robust testing procedures to close the gap between EU targets on paper and true emissions in the real world.



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IQPC Gesellschaft für Management Konferenzen mbH
Adresse: Friedrichstrasse 94, 10117 Berlin
Telefonnummer: 030 20913 -274
Fax: 49 (0) 30 20 913 240
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Geschäftsführung: Silke Klaudat, Richard A. Worden, Michael R. Worden