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Tip of the iceberg

Interview: Gero Rueter / groSeptember 23, 2015

For years, environment groups and Germany's VCD automobile association have warned about falsified fuel and exhaust data. VCD spokesman Gerd Lottsiepen criticizes the discrepancy between test values and reality.

Deutschland VW Logo Symbolbild zum Abgasen-Skandal
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Lottsiepen, how can gas emission test results be falsified?

Gerd Lottsiepen: A special software installed on a small computer recognizes that the vehicle is not running normally, but instead, running in test mode. The software knows the front wheels are turning but the vehicle is not moving - which can easily be determined by GPS. There are also other ways of using software to recognize a test run.

Does that mean that special software was developed to recognize the test mode?

This practice has been going on for years and we've had our suspicions for a long time but lacked evidence. The US authorities have now found proof.

The software recognizes the test mode and then everything runs in the permissible range. Carbon dioxide and other toxic emissions then lie below the defined limits and fuel consumption is low. But these values do not reflect real traffic conditions.

You have said that the revelations are just the tip of the iceberg. Why?

We assume that other manufacturers have been using this technology for years. The fuel consumption data provided by manufacturers is striking. The gap between values on paper and reality has been growing. The difference indicates that different methods are used to cheat in tests.

VCD Verkehrsclub Deutschland - Gerd Lottsiepen
Gerd Lottspiepen of the VCD automobile club in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Do you have proof? What do the engineers say?

The recognition of test modes has been officially denied, as it is illegal in Europe and the USA. But unfortunately, in Europe, manufacturers are not penalized like they are in the USA. Off the record, engineers are often heard saying things like, "Well, the others are doing it, so we have to as well." It is an open secret that test mode recognition software is being used.

What proof do you need to be absolutely certain?

You have to test again to prove it. We ran tests together with German Environmental Relief (Deutsche Umwelthilfe) but it was very costly. In order to obtain sound evidence, you need larger test series. In the USA, tests were run in larger series and suspicions were confirmed. Furthermore, VW has admitted to the fact that it tinkered with the tests to simulate different emissions.

Diesel filters apparently cannot reduce toxic emissions on the road. Is this dangerous?

Nitrogen oxides are the issue at hand, as they are toxins that cause respiratory irritation and attack the human body. In recent years, German authorities have noticed that air quality in cities has improved but not to the extent which would correspond to new vehicle technology.

Air quality is still problematic

What does this mean for European cities?

In the EU, emission limits for new vehicles are defined in order to make for cleaner air. We thought the new standard for diesel vehicles would eventually alleviate the problem of nitrogen oxides. But for a while now – meaning not since last weekend - reports have been claiming that more nitrogen oxides have been emitted in real traffic than officially permitted.

This is a big problem for many cities. The prescribed air quality regulations cannot be maintained. And it is now becoming increasingly clear why. Automakers have not only been cheating in the USA in recent weeks and months but it can be assumed that they cheat in Europe. And that's why the VW scandal is just the tip of the iceberg.

Automobiles have been manipulated and people have become ill. Does this constitute bodily harm with intent?

That's one way of looking at it.

Investigations have been opened in the USA. Will this happen in Europe in the future?

I hope those responsible will be called to account, but I am skeptical. In Germany, the automotive industry has a strong relationship with the government.

What are the consequences of this scandal?

I think this is a wake-up call for politicians. The EU is now negotiating new testing methods and I expect that the loopholes will be closed and violations will have consequences under criminal law. People have the right to clean air. We demand that politicians actually do something about this problem and forget about their ties to the automotive industry. The USA has set the example.

State controls are essential

Do you think that, one day, the information provided by automobile manufacturers will truly conform to real fuel consumption and toxic emission data?

Yes. Manufacturers must provide correct information, which should be re-examined and cheating prevented. Today, virtually no European institutions re-measure test results, but we need control measures as they protect public health and consumers.

In the EU, automobiles are perhaps being sold with false information. Should they be called back?

That's difficult to say. Different technologies are used to reduce nitrogen oxides. One technology, SCR (selective catalytic reduction) is actually a clean technology that works if the car's software does not turn off this technology and the required additive is injected. It is possible to use another type of software. But the automotive industry must then pay for the costs.

So could the VW scandal actually have a positive side to it?

I see it as an opportunity for the government to monitor the automotive industry more closely. The automotive industry must think about its credibility as it is an important advertising and sales factor. And that's what managers must comprehend and act on.

Gerd Lottsiepen is spokesman for the motorist's association, Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD). The VCD is committed to socially and environmentally friendly mobility.

This interview was conducted by Gero Rueter.