Dieselgate repeat remains possible after type approval rule change

22 May 2018 10:00am
Moving Car

19 April 2018. By Dave Keating.

New vehicle-type-approval rules, designed to make environmental and safety testing of new models stricter, were approved by the European Parliament today, but they may not be enough to ensure proper supervision.

Even before the motion had passed, the assembly’s biggest political grouping put out a statement crowing that the measure “stops Dieselgate happening again,” in a reference to the 2015 scandal in which Volkswagen and other carmakers were found to have cheated emissions tests.

“European consumers will have a new functional system with effective enforcement rules,” said Ivan Štefanec, a spokesman for the center-right European People’s Party.

The new rules, due to take effect in 2020, increase the responsibilities of national authorities and the European Commission to perform market-surveillance checks on cars, and introduce an EU assessment procedure every five years.

But whether these changes would really prevent a repeat of the Dieselgate scandal is up for debate. That's because a central idea for rectifying the problem — creating an EU supervisory authority overseeing national car approval bodies — was rejected by center-right lawmakers despite being demanded by Greens and the center-left.

Štefanec says that creating a supervisory agency would only have caused more red tape and delayed the new system's entry into force. The commission agreed and did not make such an agency part of its proposal, perhaps fearing that insisting on such a controversial idea could have prevented any EU response at all.

Nonetheless, EU industry commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska has threatened to put the EU supervisory body back on the table if the current type approval changes don’t fix the problem. Which begs the question: If this clearly is the best approach, might it have been worth trying to push it through at this stage?

Lack of oversight

Among the many causes of Dieselgate, one was that the German type-approval agency had become too cozy with carmakers. The German government, always close to the auto lobby, failed to hold them to account. And there was, and still is, no capacity for the European Commission to oversee this process at EU level.

Although the rules for vehicle-type approval are set in Brussels and harmonized across the bloc, the inspections to see if cars are compliant are done by national authorities in the EU member countris.

Under the legislation approved today, every EU country will be required to conduct a minimum of one inspection per 40,000 new motor vehicles registered in the previous year. At least 20 percent of these tests will have to be emissions-related. For countries with a low number of car registrations, a minimum of five tests must be conducted.

Crucially, however, these tests will be still be conducted by the national authorities, meaning existing failures among national authorities may not be fixed.

There is some new element of EU oversight: The commission will be able to carry out tests and inspections of vehicles to verify that the authorities are doing it correctly. If it discovers irregularities, it can trigger EU-wide recalls and fine carmakers up to 30,000 euros ($37,000) per non-compliant vehicle — replacing the lengthier process of taking infringement action against member states for not fining the automakers themselves.

But the question remains — without an EU agency, who is going to exercise this new power? The legislation itself doesn’t set aside additional resources for what ought to be a significant task.

The new rules will take effect on Sept. 1, 2020. A new commission will be in office by then, and it will be up to that new administration to decide how seriously they want to take this oversight role. Without the authority to create an agency or regulatory body to do the work, it may prove too easy to put this task aside.

If this is the case, the commission may indeed make good on Bieńkowska’s threat to introduce an EU agency. But by then several years will have been lost, and another Dieselgate scandal could have easily occurred in the meantime.

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