Volkswagen scandal: what it means for Irish motorists - update

From NCT re-tests to tax implications, what it means for owners of VWs, Audis, Skodas and Seats

Volkswagen has admitted up to 11 million of its vehicles worldwide have been fitted with software to deceive US emissions tests. Assistant business editor Michael McAleer explains what happened and what it means for motorists and manufacturers. Video footage: Getty Images

 

Why should Irish motorists care about the Volkswagen scandal?

Put simply, it may end up costing you more in motor tax and new car prices. While the focus is rightly on VW’s deceitful practices, the scandal will focus attention on the testing regimes in place in all jurisdictions. Campaign groups have long claimed that car firms are cheating on the official tests and say the results bear little relationship to real-life driving.

A report by European campaign group Transport and Environment last week found that nine out of 10 cars exceeded the new Euro 6 emissions standards. That needs to be put into context, however. The new Euro 6 rules only came into force on September 1st and only new cars sold since then are required to meet the new rules.

While the scandal centres on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, if the EU test system is overhauled to reflect real-life driving conditions rather than test lab conditions, then it’s likely to result in higher official figures for both fuel consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The latter has been the basis for applying annual motor tax and Vehicle Registration Tax on all cars since July 1st 2008. And more realistic figures will likely mean higher tax bands for all cars, not just diesel VWs but all petrol and diesel cars.

Ultimately it may also call into question the long-term popularity of diesel powertrains as a renewed focus on air quality may encourage governments to wind back the incentives and tax regimes that make diesels so popular.

How many Irish cars could be involved?

Volkswagen Group Ireland will not say as yet, but our estimates now suggest it could be up to 80,000 Irish motorists.

On Tuesday the German car giant confirmed 11 million cars worldwide are involved. The recall involves the engine management system on a 2-litre turbodiesel engine - known as EA189 - and we can’t confirm how many cars were sold with this engine in Ireland.

However on Friday the German minister for transport confirmed the software was fitted to versions of the EA189 diesel engine sold in Europe.

A Volkswagen spokesman said the turbodiesel engine affected comes in three variants: 2-litre, 1.6-litre and a 1.2-litre three cylinder version.

Audi confirmed that it used a version of the affected EA189 engine in its A1, A3, A4 and A6 models. A spokesman for the Ingolstadt firm said it was unable to give any further details about which years or numbers of vehicles may be affected.

Seat and Skoda were similarly unable to give precise details. However Skodas that feature the EA189 diesel are: the Fabia, Roomster, Octavia and Superb models between the years 2009 and 2013.

New car sales statistics show nearly 80,000 Audi, Skoda, Seat and VW cars were sold in Ireland with 1.2-litre, 1.6-litre, 2-litre diesels between 2009 and 2014. VW Group Ireland has declined to give any information on the number of cars affected or which models from the four brands are involved.

In the US the models affected were built between 2009 and this year and involve Golfs, Passats, Beetles and Jettas along with Audi A3s. However the engine is believed to feature in Skoda and Seat models in Europe.

On Wednesday afternoon VW Group Ireland issued a statement to customers saying : “We sincerely and deeply regret that we have abused your trust.

“All affected vehicles are absolutely safe and roadworthy. The matter at hand applies exclusively to the emitted pollutants. We will resolve this. It goes without saying that we will take full responsibility and costs for the necessary arrangements and measures. But this process will take time - time for an analysis of the circumstances and time to initiate technical measures.

“Please understand that we are currently not able to specify, which models and years of construction are affected. We will provide you with further information as soon as possible.”

Will my car be recalled?

vw

Not yet. Only the US regulator, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) , has ordered a recall of 482,000 cars in the US. The models affected were built between 2009 and this year and involve Golfs, Passats, Beetles and Jettas along with Audi A3s.

However it looks likely that, while a recall is not necessary for safety reasons, management at Audi, VW, Skoda and Seat may instigate a recall for reassurance purposes. Dealers and customers have been complaining about the lack of information coming their way amid the crisis, so recalling the cars may act as necessary PR exercise.

As the issue involves a software code on the engine management system of certain engines, if there is a recall it should be a relatively quick procedure to update the system. As with all such recalls VW would be picking up the cost of this.

Will my Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda or Seat now fail its NCT?

No, the emissions involved are not part of the NCT test. According to a spokesman for the Road Safety Authority, which oversees the NCT test, NOx emissions aren’t part of the criteria for the European roadworthiness directive upon which the test is based.

It’s understandable that people are concerned, given the favoured status of diesel amongst Irish buyers.Without getting into the ins and outs of what any individual car is likely to pass or fail on the NCT, the question here is obviously related to the constantly evolving scandal of VW”s cheating on its American emissions tests.

While the NCT doesn’t test specifically for NOx emissions, it does test for hydrocarbon emissions and these are often linked with NOx. The NCT doesn’t specifically say how it sets its tested limits on exhaust gases, the official documentation does state that “all diesel engine tests must be performed according to EU Directives.”

Ultimately it would seem very unlikely there will be any order for retests in the NCT. The Irish Government will take its cues from whatever ruling the EU or European Commission makes on the VW matter. In which case, it will probably be that the problem will be one for Volkswagen to fix and make amends for, not for its customers who were buying unawares.

In short, it’s not something that should worry owners at present.

Are there any limits on NOx in Europe?

EU emissions regulations, which have been enforced in ascending levels of strictness since the first set of rules, Euro1, was introduced in 1992. These meansurements are taken during type-approval testing, the lab-based system that is now being called into question. The criteria is known as the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC). The tests are carried out by approved centres across Europe, mainly located in States with car manufacturing centres. Ireland doesn’t have any such centre for testing at type-approval phase.

The results are then compared to the EU standards. For years the NEDC testing regime has been criticised for delivering economy figures which are unachievable in reality.

In terms of NOx emission standards these weren’t specified until the arrival of Euro3 in January 2000, when they were set at 0.25g/km. In January 2005, under Euro4, that was tightened to 0.25g/km.

Then we come to the rules that will define whether or not Volkswagen was breaking EU directives as well as American ones - Euro5a and Euro5b. Introduced, respectively, in September 2009 and September 2011, both tests pegged NOx emissions to 0.180g/km. The current Euro6 regulations, introduced in September 2014, have tightened that up ever further to 0.080g/km. As far as the NCT is concerned, it looks at the vehicles hydrocarbon emissions, which for the registration period of the VW vehicles concerned, is set at 200-parts-per-million.

If the word coming from the US is to be believed, and that VW’s cars were emitting up to 40 times to levels of NOx allowed when the secret software wasn’t running, then there’s no way that any car could possibly pass the emissions test. At that rate, a car supposedly conforming to Euro5 emissions regs wouldn’t even pass Euro3.

So did VW cheat the tests in Europe?

Investigations have, obviously, been launched, but there’s as yet no evidence that the European tests, from which the NCT draws much of its own regulations, have been circumvented.

Could the software cheat the NCT test for other emission tests?

There is no evidence of this. However campaigners have long accused the motor industry of using various “tricks” to get results in the EU testing regime that bear no relationship to real world conditions.

As stated earlier NOx isn’t really measured in the NCT so there would be no point. However, a key part of the software at the centre of the controversy is its ability to know when a test was being carried out.

If it can tell this, then other functions could theoretically be added to the programme. In the US the focus was on reducing NOx, but it is possible that for a European context such a cheat code software could be programmed to put the engine into economy mode if the aim was to record low fuel economy or CO2 emissions during the test, for example. There is no evidence that VW did this.

It’s not known if the software ‘cheat code’ could detect whether or not it was being tested for an NCT. According to the reports from the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the software would switch the car’s engine management computer into ‘cheat’ mode when it detected certain parameters were bring met - the stability and anti-collision systems were turned off, the engine was running but there were no steering inputs and so on.

The NCT does not require you to switch off stability or collision systems, so perhaps the software wouldn’t know to go in to cheat mode when being tested on Irish shores. In which case a pass is a pass is a pass. Some have suggested though that the software is hugely sophisticated, and can use many more inputs than just a stability control switch off to know of its surroundings.

If my car is affected will my motor tax increase?

No. The scandal centres on NOx emissions, while Irish motor tax - and the Vehicle Registration Tax applied to new cars - are determined by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. However, if in the longer term the testing regime is overhauled to reflect real-life figures rather than lab conditions its highly likely that the CO2 figures will rise and that may mean higher tax rates in the future. However, a change in the test procedures is highly unlikely to be retrospective, given that as with any testing procedures there is an arbitrary element to them all.

Remind me what the scandal is all about?

Last Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said diesel variants of VW and Audi models sold in the US over six years that included sophisticated algorithms to deceive the laboratory testing regime. The software could detect when the car is being tested and run treatments to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx). Once out on the road, the cars were discovered to produce pollutants up to 40 times the legal limits. NOx emissions are known to be a major contributor to serious respiratory disease.

It has since emerged that for more than a year, VW executives told the EPA that discrepancies between the formal air-quality tests on its diesel cars and the much higher pollution levels out on the road were the result of technical issues, not a deliberate attempt to deceive Washington officials. Early this month, they then admitted using software deliberately designed to cheat on the tests. According to the New York Times, the admission came only after the EPA threatened to withhold approval for the company’s new diesel models, according to letters sent to company officials by the EPA and California regulators.

What will it mean for diesel car sales?

Diesel makes up 70 per cent of sales in Ireland and became a firm favourite when the CO2-based emissions tax regime came into force on July 1st 2008. We flipped from a petrol nation to a diesel one.

Diesel was marketed as being cleaner for the environment, given the lower CO2. However, concerns over the health implications of NOx, which can affect respiratory systems and contributes to smog. Various city councils in Europe have either introduced - or are considering introducing - limits on diesel-powered vehicles entering city centres. The renewed focus on NOx may bring this up the agenda in Ireland and contribute to the promotion of petrol-electric hybrid powertrains. Ironically VW is one of the brands at the forefront of developing these hybrid cars and has recently introduced full electric and petrol electric versions of the Golf and A3 to the Irish market, while a Passat version is due to arrive in the coming months.

Ultimately it would seem the era when diesel was regarded as clean technology is over.

What will it mean for the resale value of my VW?

That’s hard to gauge at present. The damage to the brand’s reputation is significant, particularly in the US market, but given that the issue isn’t a fault that limits the car’s driving ability, this may be more of a scandal over corporate malfeasance.

Despite the environmental impact of NOx the reality is that it was never an issue for buyers before this week and is unlikely to be an issue after it unless there is some monetary connection between this particular emission and the tax regime.

However, if authorities begin to focus on NOx and, for example, introduce limits on diesels in certain parts of the city, then petrol engines and alternatives will prove more popular and that will impact on the value of all diesel cars, not just those from VW Group brands.

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