Q&A: Nick Molden, Founder and CEO of Emissions Analytics, United Kingdom



Nick Molden
03/05/2019

The introduction of the new mandatory Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure for all light duty vehicles by the EU Commission has significant impacts on powertrain engineering, exhaust after-treatment systems, type-approval procedures and measurement technology.

Automotive IQ's Real Driving Emissions conference allowed international experts from various stakeholders in the field to come together in Berlin to discuss emissions regulations in Europe, the United States and other major markets worldwide. One of the guest speakers at the event was Nick Molden, the founder and CEO of Emissions Analytics, based in the United Kingdom. Here are his thoughts on issues surrounding RDE right now:

You’re obviously experienced with emissions testing you’ve conducted over the years. Are there any basic patterns you’ve observed in the data you’ve gathered?

Based on our testing using Portable Emissions Measurement Systems (PEMS) equipment on real roads, the most striking pattern around nitrogen oxide emissions and real-world CO2 emissions is that in Europe the average gap between real-world NOx emissions and the certified values is, on average, about five times higher in real-world operation. In fact, the worst vehicles are up to twenty times worse, and those are diesel Euro 6 vehicles. So, there’s a big gap between real and certified emissions on diesel vehicles.

In terms of CO2, the gap is approximately 40 percent while in the real world, CO2 is about 40 percent higher, and that applies whether it’s diesel or petrol. That gap has been increasing over time. Also, what’s very relevant to consumers is that it goes straight to the fuel consumption as well, so people pay 40 percent more for fuel than official figures say. So, those are the most dramatic trends we've seen over the period.

We also test in the United States so we can see a comparison there. Is it a worldwide problem or just a European problem?

It’s fair to say it’s not a problem in the United States. Generally, all their vehicles are within the regulated limits for NOx in real-world operation, and the CO2 and fuel economy are in line with the EPA's five-cycle sticker numbers, so you don’t have the same systemic issues with the official figures in the US. That’s another dimension: the dramatic difference in the effectiveness of regulation between Europe and the United States. Obviously, the new Real Driving Emissions regulation is trying to fix that for NOx and particles and the early signs are good, but time will tell.

Which major challenge do you see the industry will have over the next 12 months, and 36 months, if it makes a difference?

The two things are very strongly linked. The really difficult longer-term question is CO2 reduction. You can see through the debates in the European parliament over the last few weeks whether the reduction through to 2030 is going to be 40-45% or 30-35%. This matters because it’s very expensive to reduce CO2, and the end answer will be pivotal to the fortunes, over that period and beyond, of the European automotive industry.

Why it intersects with the shorter term and NOx emissions, is really around the future of diesel. Over the next 12 months, we'll probably start getting some clarity on the future of diesel and in practice we can say that diesels certainly can be clean. There are now, at least, 30 examples of models on the road that are as clean as petrol so it’s not a technological hurdle, it’s more a commercial and consumer-confidence issue.

It’s unclear which way it’s going to go. Our diesel market share across Europe has fallen from just under 50 percent to mid-30 percent. Perhaps it will recover a little bit in a bullish scenario but it could fall to below 20 percent. If it falls to that extent then it may be there’s some possible limited, positive impact on air quality, but what it will certainly do is make meeting the CO2 targets harder.

Broadly speaking, to meet the CO2 targets, manufacturers will need some combination of diesel and electric vehicles. It’s not really a question of one or the other, you need both. In most cases, because of the relative immaturity of electric vehicles – the fact that they're loss-making for the manufacturers – their penetration for the immediate next couple of years will probably grow quite slowly so, if the diesel share falls dramatically, that would make meeting those CO2 targets very hard. Whether it’s the short term or the long term, it’s about CO2, but the effect of Dieselgate and the NOx crisis is putting a spanner in the works for meeting those CO2 targets.

How do you overcome these challenges?

The answer is out there. It’s hiding right in front of us but it just isn’t politically acceptable to acknowledge the answer. As there are diesel vehicles that are as clean as petrol for NOx and at the same time 18 percent lower for CO2, and also likely to be half the level of particulates, those clean diesel vehicles prove to be a very attractive option. But the problem is a huge confidence gap because of Dieselgate and the very ambivalent support the technology has got from government and the industry, buyers think it would be mad to buy diesel and that they’re all terribly dirty.

So, how do we overcome this challenge? In my view, it is about credibly being able to prove the diesels that are clean and separate them out from those which are dirty. This is not a generic statement saying all diesels are fine or all diesels are bad; there are clear examples of some very clean and efficient diesels and equally some very dirty ones. The only way out of this challenge is to acknowledge that fact and use real world data to sort the good from the bad.

What are the optimal policy options for cities to address pollution excesses and is this happening? What is likely to be the impact on the automotive industry, if any?

It’s a continuation from the previous question. The optimal city policies, and through my involvement in a not-for-profit organisation called AIR (Allow Independent Road-testing) we are proposing that city policies, whether it is incentivisation schemes or access schemes, should be based on real-world emissions of vehicles and not official figures.

The Euro 6 regulation has comprehensively failed in correctly labelling, in particular, the NOx emissions performance of vehicles so cities should base their policy on real world data that AIR is helping bring forward and publish, and that would be a way to solve the urban air quality problem with the smallest impact on consumers, fleets and the industry as well.

Is this happening so far? There are early indications. There are increasing numbers of fleets using real world data. In the UK, there have been some government tender exercises using it and London publishes our real-world rating data – called the ‘EQUA Index’ on the official London site. It doesn’t tie to access restrictions but it tries to inform and educate consumers which are clean and dirty vehicles. But it’s still early days.

Most cities in Germany were talking about 'diesel bans' without being terribly sophisticated about it. Firstly, the problem is the term ‘diesel ban’ conjures up fear for car owners but also, secondly, if it’s based on Euro standards, it cannot possibly work. We have plenty of examples of testing Euro 6 vehicles currently on sale which are emitting more nitrogen oxides than Euro 3 vehicles from 15 years ago. If you base policy on Euro standards, you could be banning one of those relatively clean Euro 3s and permit a very dirty Euro 6. That's sub-optimal, and in my view likely to attract a legal challenge, so cities really need to think about and embrace the notion of real-world testing.

If the industry were to go down that road, it’s a way of minimising the impact. For example, let’s say 50 percent of diesel vehicles would still be permitted and the other 50 percent would then need to be fixed through some sort of software/hardware retrofit, or traded-in by the manufacturer to basically see their customer right and solve the problem that they sold a vehicle that, while legal, was significantly over-emitting. They make good to trade-in those dirty cars for the latest clean ones. It’s not without cost; it would be a fair cost on the industry but less unattractive than any other option.

Where do you see the biggest investments in the next 12 months?

There clearly has been significant ramp-ups in investment in electrification, from cell technology, battery technology, powertrain design – whether in plug- in hybrids or pure EVs – and that’s only going to grow. The policy direction is quite clear and that needs to be seen in the context of a global, industrial competition of Europe wanting to develop a competitive advantage in battery technology and not just cede to Asia. There will be a lot of investment in that area.

Will there be investment in the traditional internal combustion engine?

I think there will be at a lower level than historically. I don’t think people will shout about it because it’s terribly unfashionable at the moment, but the inherent properties of internal combustion engines are still quite attractive for cars and almost unavoidable for heavy duty applications, so it’s certainly not going to disappear.

There will probably need to be a big chunk of investment cleaning up this installed stock of dirty diesels. By our estimates, there are about 40 million diesel cars on European roads which are high emitters and which need to be sorted in some way. The industry may be backed by government, maybe not. It will need to do that process of retrofitting or trading-in to solve the 40 million – and that will come at a price. That could be thought of as investment – as investment in cleaning up the air, investment in getting the automotive sector working again and healthy again, and dealing with this terrible overhang of Dieselgate.

  • Nick Molden was a speaker Automotive IQ’s 2018 Real Driving Emissions conference, which took place in Berlin, Germany. For information on all of our forthcoming conferences, check out the Events page.

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