Germany’s planned diesel retrofit could prove controversial

18 July 2017

18 July 2017 The German Government is currently in discussions with vehicle manufacturers to find a way of improving air quality in the country. This ultimately means that solutions will be focused on the diesel engine, which has been much maligned since the Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal broke.  With national elections being held on 24 September 2017, the Government is keen to seem proactive on the issue of pollution, especially as it has received criticism in the past for how it has handled the fallout from Dieselgate. With investigations ongoing into VW and now Daimler having the finger of suspicion firmly pointed at it, two of the country’s leading vehicle manufacturers could have been cheating emission tests for years, meaning millions of cars around the world, not just in Germany, are pumping out high levels of pollutants.  Until recently, there seemed to be only one solution for Germany – to instigate a ban on diesel vehicles in certain cities. This is a plan that was taken up by some of the country’s smaller state governments, with Stuttgart, Munich and Cologne all planning a driving ban on non-Euro 6 vehicles. For manufacturers, this would have been disastrous as drivers would switch away from the fuel and move to either petrol, hybrid or electric vehicles (EVs). With German carmakers lagging behind in the EV technology race, they could easily see a dramatic reduction in their home market share.  However, discussions between Audi, BMW and the Bavarian Government have yielded a possible solution. The two carmakers have agreed to develop software for Euro-5 vehicles which can be installed during a recall, effectively retrofitting these cars with the same diesel-cleaning configuration as newer cars have. Talks are ongoing as no agreement has been reached on who will cover the cost of any recall and servicing. Yet the talks have grown and become national, with an announcement of a plan expected at the country’s National Diesel Forum on 2 August 2017.   Now, German publication Der Spiegel claims it has seen preliminary reports on the software to be introduced to vehicles, stating that both sides have agreed on an outdoor temperature of more than 10 degrees Celsius before the software begins cleaning the emissions from the vehicle. If true, this would prove a controversial threshold as Germany’s average annual temperature during 2016 was 9.4 degrees.   The German Transport Ministry has denied the reports in the publication, which states that vehicle manufacturers need assurances of the high temperature setting so certain components within the engine are protected.  According to news agency Reuters, software updates to all affected vehicles could cost between €1.5 billion and €2.5 billion. This is a cost that needs to be met either by the manufacturers or the government, and this is the current sticking point on any retrofitting plan.  Parts supplier Continental believes it would cost an extra €1,000 to run a vehicle to ensure that the treatment systems would work at temperatures below 10 degrees. However, CEO Elmar Degenhart has suggested a heatable catalyst could be fitted at recall, which would then allow the ′fix’ to operate at temperatures of minus seven degrees Celsius, making it more relevant to the country’s conditions.   Yet the move to arrange a plan in order to lower the emission of older diesel vehicles has gone some way to potentially alleviating the proposed city bans. According to local publications in Stuttgart, the idea of restricting vehicles fuelled by diesel has been dropped. According to reports, the plans are dropped due to them not being legally feasible. However, the point in the city’s draft bill to tackle air pollution has not been replaced, potentially indicating that the state of Baden-WÃœrttemberg is waiting to see the results of any agreement between the Transport Ministry and manufacturers.   The President of the country’s VDA automotive industry association, Matthias Wissmann, admitted at the beginning of July: ′In some German cities, the annual average values ″‹″‹for nitrogen oxides (NOx) set by the EU are exceeded at measuring stations located within them.’  

This statement would suggest that something still needs to be done in order to ensure emission targets are met in order to reduce air pollution and therefore, Stuttgart, in the state which began talks with manufacturers over retrofitting, could be waiting to see what happens on a national level before deciding if any further action is required.