Diesel change could be accelerated by drivers rather than regulation

06 June 2018

06 June 2018

Drivers may do as much as vehicle regulators when it comes to shifting the automotive market towards zero-emission vehicles.

That is the view of European Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, who is in charge of industrial policy. She believes that the Dieselgate scandal, which came to light in 2015, was a ′breakthrough’ moment that affected ′the emotions in society toward emissions and cleaner cars.’

′Diesel cars are finished,’ Bienkowska said in an interview. ′I think in several years they will completely disappear. This is the technology of the past. People have realised that we will never have completely clean – without NOx (nitrogen oxides) – diesel cars.’

EU governments recently backed a revamp of the rules for authorising car models in the 28 member states. The European Commission won the power to fine carmakers up to €30,000 per faulty car and order recalls as part of the more centralised market oversight, becoming more like the US Environmental Protection Agency which uncovered the emissions scandal.

Bienkowska said in an interview with Bloomberg that ′arrogance’ by automakers, coupled with their traditionally close ties to national governments, meant the draft law was initially greeted as if the industry wrongdoing had been insignificant. Gradually, she said, attitudes changed.

′I am a little bit less frustrated than I was a year ago,’ said Bienkowska. ′During this denial phase, it was awful.’

Meanwhile, adding to the optimism is an initiative by the commission and industry to spur the development in Europe of batteries for electric cars, including through financing. European companies seeking to get a foothold in the market include BMW, Daimler, BASF and Vattenfall.

′We want to have the first batteries produced in Europe, but also the whole value chain,’ Bienkowska said. ′It’s the kind of a project that a single member state cannot afford.’

ACEA also issued a press release on 5 June, stating that ′members of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) have re-iterated their commitment to decarbonisation, as well as their concerns about the consequences of a poorly-managed transition. These include affordability for consumers, limited infrastructure availability and socio-economic impacts.’

While these opinions may reflect a future trend, currently there are millions of diesel vehicles on the roads across the continent. It is Germany that is under the most scrutiny, with bans in certain cities already coming into force, while manufacturers are issuing software retrofits to clean up older models.

Yet according to environment minister Svenja Schulze, carmakers have a ′moral obligation’ to refit polluting diesel vehicles with new hardware, rather than software. This would be a costly measure and one which manufacturers are not keen to adopt.

In an interview published in Die Welt newspaper. Schulze said refits could first be carried out on cars on the road in particularly polluted cities. By targeting areas most affected, the costs of such refits need only be ′in the low single-digit billions,’ she said.

′As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about immediately refitting all diesels in Germany,’ Schulze said. ′I advocate a step-wise plan to refit diesels where the air is particularly bad… The total costs would then be in the low single-digit billions.’

While she conceded the government had no legal means to force automakers to follow her plan, she said they were under a moral obligation to do so.

′Without refits, consumer confidence will fall even further,’ she said. ′Neither drivers nor taxpayers should be asked to pay. Carmakers are under an obligation!’