Only a few years ago, diesel cars were going to help save the planet. Now, they’re looking like a public health catastrophe, as investigations uncover a scam of sooty skulduggery. Dave Hansford reports.

In the Kiwi motorcade of aging Japanese imports, European diesel cars have always conferred a certain greener-than-thou entitlement on their owners. For starters, their fuel economy is legendary: a single flush of your toilet uses more fluid than a Skoda Octavia driven from Wellington to Palmerston North.

In the early 2000s, as it dawned on us that fossil fuels were here for a limited time only, European governments and some US state administrations coaxed motorists into diesel, with tax breaks and trade-in deals. Everyone knew about the fuel’s dirty little secrets: particulate emissions (PMs)— tiny flakes of soot linked to cancer — and nitrous oxides (NOx) that bind with hydrocarbons in the air, aggravating climate change and smog. Diesels emit more of both than their petrol competition, but governments struck a deal with auto makers: they would incentivise diesel sales if the car companies got their vehicle emissions down to meet tough new European standards.

Sales boomed. By 2011, diesels comprised up to 70 percent of car sales in some European countries, and more than a third in India. In gas-loving America, diesels achieved double-digit growth.

Lab testing implied that the carmakers had held up their end of the deal. Then, in September 2015, researchers at West Virginia University plugged sophisticated monitors into a Volkswagen Jetta and took it for a very long drive. They came back with some puzzling results. The Jetta was breaching US emissions limits “by a factor of 15 to 35”.

Volkswagen had cheated, installing sensors — called defeat devices — that can detect an emissions test in the laboratory, when the cars wheels do not turn, and stifle nitrous oxide emissions. Once back on the open road, though, some 11 million Volkswagen diesels (including Audi and Porsche models) reverted to law-breaking defaults, emitting enough excess NOx to prematurely kill almost 60 people in the US, and 1200 in Europe between 2008 and 2015, according to studies.

It gets much, much worse: all diesel marques, it turns out, produce many times the volume of pollutants when driven, as compared to static testing — an estimated 4.6 million extra tonnes in 2015 alone — responsible, say researchers, for the premature deaths of some 38,000 people, mostly in Europe, China and India. New data from compliance leader Emissions Analytics (EA) shows that all but eight of 263 contemporary diesels breach 2009 EU regulations, widely regarded as the world’s toughest. According to EA, the 2016 Renault Megane 1.5l and Espace 1.6l diesels belch out more than 12 times the NOx lab levels when driven in the real world, while a Mercedes Benz CLA (2.1l) diesel emitted between eight and 12 times more. The Mazda 3 (1.5l) and Hyundai Sante Fe (2.2l) emitted 6-8 times the limit. Until testing rules change later this year, it’s still legal to sell these vehicles in Europe.

Meanwhile, some New Zealand truckies stand accused of cheating on pollutants with devices called “adblue emulators”. Adblue is a diesel additive designed to reduce NOx emissions, and many European truck engines — designed to meet tough Euro standards — won’t even start if they can’t detect its presence. But Adblue emulators fool them with a substitute that restores some of the engine’s power and economy, but allows harmful NOx to pass straight into the air. 

Automakers’ deceptions have been “an open secret” says Simon Hales, Research Associate Professor at the New Zealand Asthma and Respiratory Foundation. Hales says they’ve “successfully lobbied to weaken emission standards at the expense of public health.” Particulate and NOx emissions from diesels have been linked to emphysema and bronchitis, and exacerbating heart disease. They kill around 400 New Zealanders a year, and generate some 700 respiratory hospital admissions (young children are disproportionately affected, making up about a third of all admissions), and more than 80 cardiac admissions. They’re also implicated in an average of 22 cancer-related deaths per annum.

In 2015, light diesels — the category that includes passenger cars — made up 17.4 per cent of new registrations in New Zealand. That year, there were an estimated 606,181 light diesels in the country, along with 9503 buses and 133,466 trucks and 24,614 “other” diesels, such as road-going tractors and construction plant.

There were no vehicle emission regulations at all in New Zealand until 2004, when tens of thousands of smoky old diesel imports had already taken to our roads. That year, NOx and PM emissions standards were imposed, to be gradually ramped up to Euro III in 2008. But that did nothing to ameliorate the harm from those older, unregulated imports, because New Zealanders keep their cars longer than almost anyone. In 2011, the average age of used imports in the national fleet hit an all time high at 14.2 years, as rules relaxed. In December that year, it was still legal to import diesels built in 2001.

In 2012, New Zealand adopted the more stringent Euro V emissions standard, so why are there still so many manifestly smoky diesels on New Zealand roads? “We know for a fact that many large trucks are belching out clouds of illegal pollutants every day,” says Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog and Lemon Guide, “and the Government does little or nothing about it. Devices that enable truckies to cheat the anti-pollution systems in their trucks are freely sold online. That’s in addition to the thousands of diesel cars that have been proven to produce up to 40 times their claimed levels of pollution. And in most cases, the New Zealand Government looks the other way.”

Theoretically, smoky diesels should be culled out whenever they come up for a warrant or certificate of fitness, by dint of the “visual smoke test”, the sole instrument of diesel compliance in New Zealand. It relies entirely on the discretion and visual acuity of testing staff, who eyeball a vehicle’s tailpipe for smoke during a short blip on the throttle. Any smoke, according to regulator the Transport Agency,  “… must not be noticeably and significantly more visible than it would have been when the vehicle was manufactured”. But Agency records show that since the smoke test was adopted in 2009, just 21 diesel passenger cars have failed it. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer heavy trucks are failing the smoke test: in 2009, 227 were declined a Certificate of Fitness. Last year, only 21 failed, despite the fact that the average age of the New Zealand truck fleet is increasing, according to the Ministry of Transport; from 15.8 years in 2009 to 17.6 years in 2015.

Matthew-Wilson says it’s time the Government got tough.

“Diesels should be checked regularly, at the side of the road, with heavy penalties for those who knowingly pollute. The Government should also look at suing the companies that bring in these polluting vehicles, and put the money towards improving the general quality of the air around our cities.”

As far back as 2006, a Fuel Technologies Ltd report to the Ministry of Transport pointed out that visual smoke testing gave no real indication of on-road emissions output. Given that automakers have been able to rort far more sophisticated testing regimes than New Zealand’s, says Simon Hales, “The current situation is unacceptable. It’s technically and economically possible to prevent excessive emissions from diesel engines with particle traps and other measures. Vehicle emission standards need to be designed to reflect real world conditions, and need to be enforced by mandatory testing. It should be made illegal to inactivate emission control equipment.”

In 2014, a Transport Agency study found that NOx concentrations in New Zealand “from (light) diesel vehicles did not reduce with improvements in emissions control technology” between 2003 and 2014. Revelations about the Jekyll and Hyde nature of modern diesels may help to explain why. Even if they were meeting Euro standards, says the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), light diesels would still be causing 70,000 early deaths worldwide every year. Much tougher controls are needed, it says, to curb still-rising NOx emissions which could, by 2040, be killing as many as 174,000 people annually.

“Manufacturers know how to make their cars clean and they are actively choosing not to,” the ICCT’s Ray Minjares told media when the scandal broke in May. “The question for the public is: are we comfortable with that situation?”

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