VW, emissions and the implications for tyre testing

In mid-September the emissions hit the fan for VW. What began with an admission that half a million Golfs and Beetles were not showing the right emissions values in lab tests, quickly became a global scandal involving 11 million vehicles, disastrously affecting the group’s share price, resulting in the ‘restructuring’ of the firm’s global leadership and worst of all affecting confidence in both VW and the wider automotive and automotive testing industries.

Now, in what is clearly still an evolving story, politicians are getting involved left, right and centre. While not as quick of the mark as the French authorities, it didn’t take long for UK Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin to suggest he will be pushing for European level action on car emissions tests. According to BBC News, on 22 September he said: “We are closely monitoring the situation and have been pushing for action at a European level for more accurate tests that reflect driving on the road. It’s vital that the public has confidence in vehicle emissions tests and I am calling for the European Commission to investigate this issue as a matter of urgency.” In an earlier statement, a DfT spokesperson said: “All cars on UK roads must adhere to Europe-wide regulations on emissions. Any car found to be noncompliant can be recalled and taken off the market.”

Any hypothetical recall would clearly be a very expensive outcome for VW, if indeed such wide ranging moves were to happen and if vehicles were found to be non-compliant. Another question which remains unanswered is if any other car manufacturers are involved. However, what’s bigger than both these points is the fact that the political pressure – whether it is rooted in professional posturing or not – is for “more accurate tests that reflect driving on the road”. Not only is this a sea-change in the way vehicle tests have been done up till now, but – were it to happen – it would no-doubt influence the way tests are done in the tyre sector too.

To be clear, we don’t know there will be any knock-on effect on tyres. And no one is suggesting any link between the uncovered dishonesty in the VW case and any part of the tyre industry, but the reality is that tyre development is greatly influenced by vehicle development. Likewise with testing. The point is that one short clause in the Transport Secretary’s statement could well influence both vehicle development and testing. For example, the most logical way to reduce emissions of any kind (be they CO2 or NOx, the gas at the centre of the current scandal) is to reduce fuel consumption. Therefore owing to tyres’ direct impact on fuel consumption and thus emissions there could now be even more pressure than there currently is on tyre manufacturers to help OEMs achieve and improve emissions levels. Achieve – because many of the European tests are done in laboratory/rolling road conditions, making them more difficult to replicate on the road. And improve because the paradigm shift that is currently taking place serves only to widen the gap between the present day and the next set of European emissions goals.

Secondly, the debacle could cause renewed attention on the tyre sector’s own testing regime, especially with regard to European tyre labelling. Another series of comments from the DfT, this time words tweeted from the department’s Twitter account on 24 September and attributed to the Transport Secretary, illustrates this point: “…My priority is to protect the public as we go through the process of investigating what went wrong and what we can do to stop it happening again in the future.” This includes asking the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) to re-test certain vehicles: “As part of this work they [the VCA] will re-run laboratory tests where necessary and compare them against real world driving emissions.”

Again, if this is more than political bluster, it suggests a shift away from manufacturer-led vehicle testing and towards greater state involvement in at least validating test results. Apart from the fact that this is likely to be good news for the likes of MIRA and Millbrook, which can offer third-party testing, it points to a different automotive testing approach and in turn raises questions about the implications for tyre testing and specifically European tyre labelling tests. Since European tyre labelling began in earnest nearly three years ago, there have always been claims of variability in the test process at the milder end of the spectrum and accusations of outright lying on the other. Should anything like the latter now be proved to be the case, in the light of the VW saga, such revelations could be more damaging than ever.

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