Mercedes in war of words with EU over air-con chemicals

Cold War over refrigerants heats up


Mercedes is wading into a battle with the EU over the use of what are claimed to be illegal refrigerant chemicals in the air conditioning systems of its cars.

The EU had issued a directive which stated that by the end of January 2011, the refrigerant gas known as R134a should no longer be used in cars, but instead replaced with a new gas, known as R1234yf. Why? Because R134a has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) figure of 1,430, which essentially means it’s 1,430 times worse for the environment that carbon dioxide. R1234yf by contrast has a GWP of just four.

The EU gave car makers a two years grace period to change the gases, which ran out in January of this year.

Mercedes though has stuck to its guns over the use of R134a, saying that the replacement gas is both poisonous and can potentially start a fire if an air conditioning pipe splits or is torn in a front-end collision.

In a statement following a test at Mercedes’ HQ in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, Walter Pütz, director of vehicle certification and regulatory affairs at Mercedes-Benz Cars said: “the whole vehicle can catch fire and the burning refrigerant generates acutely poisonous hydrogen fluoride which poses a severe danger to both passengers and rescue workers.”

Mercedes’ findings were backed up by the German Federal Environment Agency, the UBA, which said: “We have been warning about the dangers (of HF0-1234yf) for years. Daimler’s internal tests proved not only that our own fears were justified but also that we may even have underestimated the risks.”

Again, this would now seem to be cut and dried. Bin the dangerous new chemical and go back to using the old system until new Co2-based air conditioning systems have been developed, an avenue that Mercedes says it is actively pursuing.

That it seem is not enough though, and now Mercedes is running the risk of ultimately having sales of its cars banned in the EU, as well as having to recall all those cars sold since January of this year, because it is not complying with the directive. Admittedly it’s an unlikely proposition given the political clout of the three-starred badge but Chris Davies, a British Liberal Democrat MEP representing the north-west of the UK is personally taking Mercedes to task on this issue.

“EU environment laws only work if they are fair to everyone and by letting Daimler off, Germany is being unfair to manufacturers from France to Spain to the Czech Republic. Given the number of cars and car parts manufactured in my own North West England constituency I’m glad the Commission are taking a tough line,” says Mr Davies.

“We can’t build a stronger economy if some countries won’t play by the rules. A fine for Daimler won’t be enough - there needs to be a recall of all the illegal cars.”

Mr Davies told The Irish Times that Mercedes’ own tests are being rubbished by the rest of the car industry. “Every other car manufacturer in the world, or so I understand, believes that Daimler-Benz’s so-called tests are spurious, and so does the European Commission and international safety bodies. One interpretation of the Commission’s findings would be that Daimler-Benz has simply designed its cars badly, so that a refrigerant that presents no risk elsewhere might do so in its vehicles.

“Other manufacturers say Daimler-Benz could correct this with a virtual snap of the fingers, and they point out that carmakers deal with inflammable substances as a matter of course petrol, diesel, brake fluid, oil, etc etc. The new refrigerant with its very low global warming potential is now the standard in all new model cars being sold in Europe. ”

Mr Davies also reacted angrily to the suggestion that it was ironic that a British MEP was having a pop at a German car maker seeking an opt-out from European regulations, considering the UK’s often fractious relationship with Brussels. “This is not a matter of Member State opt outs, but of one company deliberately breaking the law and, so far, the government of the country in which it is located not taking any action. If every company decided to pick and choose which laws to apply then there could never be fair competition in Europe.” It is possibly significant that Mr Davies’ constituency includes both Merseyside, where Jaguar Land Rover has a major production facility, and Cheshire, where VW-owned Bentley has its home factory.

Motor Distributors, the importers of Mercedes cars in Ireland declined to comment on speculation around the issue of a potential recall or even a sales ban, simply saying that a statement by Mercedes-Benz would likely be made in due course.

It seems that the rest of the German car industry is also split over the issue. Volkswagen is known to be cautious about the introduction of R1234yf and is, similarly to Mercedes, working on new CO2 based systems.

Opel, however, has recently put a Mokka mini-SUV through an even harsher test than that Mercedes conducted. Carried out in association with the TUV, Germany’s national safety experts, the test found no danger that R1234yf could ignite, despite the testers confirming that the engine had been allowed to reach temperatures of 100-deg celsius higher than that of the Mercedes test, and that if the crash had been any more severe “there would have been nothing left of the engine compartment.”

Neither the Departments of Environment or Transport have yet taken any stand on the issue, with representatives from both saying that it would be down to the European Commission to enforce any recall or sales ban on Mercedes products.

For its part, the Commission is saying only that it’s calling on member states to enforce directives appropriately. But this week, events stepped up in their intensity, as France is starting to block the registration of A-Class, B-Class and SL models made since the beginning of June, citing the lack of the new, approved refrigerant as a reason. This is despite the German vehicles registration and export authorities confirming the vehicles as being acceptable.

Doubtless accusations of protectionism, from both sides, will shortly follow and they could be the opening salvoes in what could be a long and rancorous war, a war of still indeterminate temperature.