Whether diesel has a future or not is a question of credibility. The scandal about manipulated exhaust emissions has shown what has been wrong in the automobile industry for years.
On the one hand, there is Volkswagen: This is a company in which people placed incredible trust, and yet it was involved in incredible levels of deception. And on the other hand are automakers like Mercedes, Opel and Renault, which apparently just accepted the fact that their diesel models were a great deal dirtier on the road than on the test rig.
And let's not forget testing authorities such as Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) which claims to have known nothing about what was going on over the years.
Any question about the future of diesel is also about increasing people’s level of awareness about all that it entails. The KBA is currently showing an astonishing reluctance to conduct its investigation into the diesel affair openly and transparently. For example, it took a massive public outcry for the KBA to disclose important details about the recall of millions of VW vehicles.
The change of mentality, so often proclaimed by VW in public, clearly hasn’t reached the German testing authority. It’s no wonder then that there are already open discussions in Europe about stripping it of its powers.
The European industry commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska, is calling for a Europe-wide road-worthiness test. Ms. Bienkowska wants to create a pan-European institution which could conduct random tests on models in circulation on Europe’s roads and initiate recalls in the case of violations, impose fines and even ban models. In other words: an authority with real bite. This is overdue – at the very latest since the diesel scandal.
While the U.S. environmental authority, the EPA, consistently champions consumer interests vis-à-vis the automobile industry, automakers here have little to fear from European inspectors. It’s no coincidence that ripped-off U.S. customers are being pacified with vouchers and buyback offers, while European customers face an obligatory recall action.
Common practice elsewhere is a good teacher here: Where tests are strict, diesel automobiles are cleaner. However, more realistic exhaust emission levels recently passed by the European Union are not enough on their own. Because regulations are only strict when adherence to them is also strictly controlled.
Manufacturers – quite legitimately – are seldom willing of their own accord to go further than legal requirements. Especially when they don’t have to fear huge deviations in emission exhaust levels being discovered. So it’s no surprise then that an American BMW X5 today is already cleaner than the identical model on German roads.
The industry commissioner, Ms. Bienkowska, calls German registration procedures "ridiculous." Here too, it is difficult to contradict her. If an automobile is registered, automakers in Germany just choose their testers from a list provided by the KBA. They are examinees and examiners at the same time. In the final analysis, the KBA just checks out the documents provided by the technical services, but does not carry out tests itself on any car.
And because a registration in one member-state is generally valid for the whole of Europe, the continent has seen something of a competition to see who can offer the laxest test. Anyone who is too strict, loses out – something else which the E.U. commissioner wants to end as soon as possible.
In future, testers are to be paid from one budget, with all manufacturers paying into it. This is one proposal which could protect testers from accusations of bias, but which might well be more expensive than the rotation principle, with which the German transport ministry wants to defuse the situation.
Overall, a European authority would be the right step to implement environmental and consumer protection – also in major automobile countries. A testing authority along the lines of a bank supervisory board could restore to customers those feelings of safety and trust which they lost in the diesel scandal.
That is why the E.U. commissioner’s initiative represents a big opportunity for the automobile industry. Diesel technology is still too important for European automakers for it to be relinquished altogether. So it is not enough to make diesel cars cleaner – automakers have to shed their image as tricksters. To do this, they have to put distance between themselves and any suspicion of manipulation. Then – and only then – does diesel have a future.
The author is a reporter on Handelsblatt's mobility team. You can reach him at: [email protected]