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Why are EU manufacturers claiming their defeat devices are not defeat devices?

Published Fri, 2017.02.10 | By

John German

I am completely befuddled. Once again, a European manufacturer has admitted they change emission control calibrations to increase emissions under normal driving conditions – but somehow they seem to believe this is OK.

I wrote a blog on June 15, 2016 about Opel’s admission that it reduced the emission controls based on three different conditions encountered under normal driving conditions. Opel said that its “engines are in compliance with the legal requirements” in Europe, but they would not be legal in the US.

Now we have PSA, which responded to the decision made by the French Competition, Consumer Affairs and Prevention of fraud department (DGCCRF) to send the conclusions of its investigation to the public prosecutor by issuing a statement that included the following:

The test results are consistent with the PSA Group's approach – which has been explained to the various authorities and the media – of setting engine parameters according to real-life driver behaviour.

The Group's engines are developed with a priority focus on reducing NOx emissions (nitrogen oxides) in urban environments, while offering the best NOx / CO2 balance under extra-urban conditions over a wide temperature range and without any discontinuity.

Contrast this statement with the European defeat device requirements, which are presented here in their entirety:

‘defeat device’ means any element of design which senses temperature, vehicle speed, engine speed (RPM), transmission gear, manifold vacuum or any other parameter for the purpose of activating, modulating, delaying or deactivating the operation of any part of the emission control system, that reduces the effectiveness of the emission control system under conditions which may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal vehicle operation and use;

The use of defeat devices that reduce the effectiveness of emission control systems shall be prohibited. The prohibition shall not apply where:

  1. the need for the device is justified in terms of protecting the engine against damage or accident and for safe operation of the vehicle;
  2. the device does not function beyond the requirements of engine starting; or
  3. the conditions are substantially included in the test procedures for verifying evaporative emissions and average tailpipe emissions.

Do you see any language in the defeat device requirements saying it is OK to set “engine parameters according to real-life driver behavior”? Nor do I. Yet PSA specifically states this Is what they do – and somehow thinks this is OK, as reflected by statements by PSA engineering chief Gilles Le Borgne: "We are extremely surprised, even shocked by this decision." The company denies using banned engine software cheats, he added.

So, PSA admits to changing emission control calibrations under normal driving—but denies using banned engine software. I can only draw one of two conclusions. One is that enforcement is so lax and cheating is so widespread and universally accepted that the engineers at PSA (and Opel, and other manufacturers) do not realize that what they are doing is illegal. The other is that they and their management do realize that, and they are resorting to alternative facts (how do the cars even know for certain that they are outside urban areas?). If it is the former, then the engineers are incompetent and should be fired. If it is the latter, then the management of these companies is dishonest and should be fired. Either way, the companies should be punished for breaking the laws and harming the public health.

Which is not to let the enforcement agencies off the hook. The decision by DGCCRF to send this case to the public prosecutor is a breath of fresh air in a region where most enforcement agencies have done and are still doing little or nothing, despite the growing mounds of evidence. As eloquently expressed by Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne yesterday, "Bad rules are also applied in a different way in every country, creating the worst solution that could be invented," and saying that the single market was meant "to avoid this mess".

At a minimum, this is a powerful argument for European agencies to clarify how the ban on vehicle emission test defeat devices is administered under the EU regulations. Using shortcuts to make calibration easier is not allowed in the US, where many manufacturers have proven that they can maintain low emissions and excellent durability under all normal in-use driving conditions. The gaming of defeat device regulations has gone on for far too long in the EU. It is time for the charade to stop.