What’s all the fuss about emissions testing and the results?

We interrupt this programme to bring you news of…  emissions testing and cheating. Ever since Volkswagen were nabbed being less than honest about the pollutants pouring out of their cars’ tailpipes, every manufacturer has been on edge, and with good reason. It seems that every other week yet another car maker is mentioned or rumoured to be giving emissions test results whose veracity holds as much water as a Victorian tea-strainer. The latest victim is Mitsubishi, one of my favourite car makers (if you don’t think the Lancer Evolution is the best thing to happen to motoring since the invention of internal combustion, put down the paper and walk away, I’m not talking to you).

The headline associated with their quandary is downright ruthless: “Mitsubishi: we’ve been cheating on fuel tests for 25 years!” and is the kind of news that causes corporations to collapse overnight when scared investors dump stocks on the bourse, in other words, take their money and run.

From a scribbler’s perspective, it generates interest and boosts readership, but for a Mitsubishi employee, it’s enough to make a man want to jump off the upper floors of a tall building. My heart bleeds for Mitsubishi Motors. That, in primary school-speak, is called “being in hot soup”. But first, how did we even get to this point in this epidemic?

Patient zero: The Volkswagen Group

This is how it went down. Someone with a lot of time on their hands noticed a discrepancy in the emissions test results between US models and European models of VW vehicles. That person blew the whistle very hard.  That, in street lingo, is what we call “snitching”.

Volkswagen woke up to news that the EPA did not think very highly of their violation of something called the “Clean Air Act”, and boy, were they going to pay for it. What, exactly, was the sin? The German geniuses had programmed their cars to “know” when emissions testing was being done — an algorithm in the ECU’s programming that monitored throttle actions that mimicked those of testing regimes causing the ECU to adjust settings in a pleasing manner — and pollute the air accordingly.

DIESELGATE SCANDAL

In normal use, the vehicles put out up to 40 times more NOx (oxides produced during combustion)  than was permitted, and than was apparent in lab testing… and a lot more horsepower, I might add.

Trust the world’s policeman to stir things up. Volkswagen found itself the target of regulatory investigations in several other countries as well as the US, where the whole issue originated. Stock prices fell by a third in short order. Heads rolled. If you think it was a PR disaster, then you don’t know the half of it. Eleven million vehicles were affected, with a cool half a million of them Stateside alone.

Now, thanks to the mosquito-killing hammer strike that has been the entire furor surrounding Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, they’ve killed what would have been most easily their most exciting vehicle. Yes, VW builds Bentleys with enough torque to cause tectonic shifts in continental plates, yes they build Lamborghinis that have blue flames shooting out the exhaust pipe, and yes, they build the Bugattis Veyron and Chiron but they were also going to build the Golf R400, a Golf R with 395hp (let’s just call it 400hp). Now they won’t.

From a combination of pecuniary penalties varying between compensation for consumers who felt hoodwinked by VW’s chicanery and punitive charges (read fines) as imposed by the American government, Volkswagen is looking at  roughly a $25 billion (Sh2.5 trn) payout  all in. That figure might include buybacks, but it does include the $7 billion VW set aside to handle the mess – something to the tune of  $5,000 (Sh500,000) compensation package per affected vehicle, plus a potential $18  billion  (Sh1.8 trn) fine from the authorities. Those are a lot of zeroes, and it will be painful  paying them. There is also the little matter of what to do with the thousands of faulty vehicles that will either be recalled or bought back. To add insult to injury, Volkswagen has to deflect a barrage of lawsuits from some of their own dealers/franchise holders in the US over the scandal.

Three Illinois dealerships defied a VW dealer council directive to settle matters out of court and are filing a 111-page suit through the firm of Hans Berman Sobol Shapiro for damages arising from the mess. One can’t really blame them; when the parent company keeps saying “We’re working on it” but they still have the onerous task of marketing products of a stigmatised brand.

The first recall of 15,000 diesel Golfs — those equipped with the 2.0 litre EA89 BlueMotion engine — in Europe has been initiated. The software fixes are not expected to affect performance or economy. This is in the face of a $144 million  (Sh14.4 bn)   loss in the fourth quarter of 2015. When it rains, it pours, as the saying goes.

The unusual suspect: Mercedes-Benz

Speaking of lawsuits, in the words of the great unknown motoring columnist, Jamie Kitman, “Justice” is a seven-letter word, just like “lawsuit”;  it wasn’t just Volkswagen being untruthful, there were plenty others (see “Summary” below). The German government concluded that Volkswagen was the only car builder to actually use a cheat system in circumventing emissions standards (the rest just plain lied; maybe they lacked the know-how to develop a cheating system), but one US law firm, already suing Volkswagen, had other ideas.

Hans Berman Sobol Shapiro — yes, the same sharks representing  the Illinois dealers — now representing th owners of Mercedes-Benz cars from 13 of the 50 states, filed a 172-page lawsuit against the Stuttgart-based automaker for 43 counts of misconduct in various jurisdictions, misconduct that embodied fraud, breach of contract, false advertising, unfair trade practices and violating a good number of state-specific consumer protection acts. That is legalese, and a very dramatic way of saying that some Mercedes-Benz cars underwent independent testing and were found to be producing up to 31 times the legal limit of NOx pollutants. It would not be as noteworthy if the lawsuit did not also allege that Daimler was using cheating devices on their vehicles just like Volkswagen, which would then explain why real-world tests did not match lab tests.

Now, Mercedes-Benz is the father of the motoring industry, and they have no time for smart-aleck lawyers taking shots in the dark in the hope of hitting something. While Berman & Company went verbose over 172 pages in their tort, the Germans summed up their response in exactly two sentences: “We consider this class action lawsuit to be unfounded. Our position remains unchanged: a component that inadmissibly reduces emissions is not used in Mercedes-Benz vehicles.”

That, in street lingo, is what we call “gangsta” (that’s how it’s spelt).

And now, Mitsubishi Motors

Mitsubishi had to face the ignominy of admitting to having falsified fuel efficiency tests over the past quarter century, a move that has since wiped out a clean half of the company’s market value and seen their premises raided by the authorities. That, in the industry, is what we call “a bad day at the office”.

While it is immediately unclear what exactly Mitsubishi was doing wrong, the general picture emerging is that test results were deliberately exaggerated by as much as 10 per cent in small cars, including vehicles the company was supplying to fellow Japanese maker Nissan, vehicles that comprise three-quarters of all total affected units. Was this an underhanded manoeuvre to throw Nissan under the bus? They are competitors after all, at the end of the day, partnership or no partnership. Or was it, like in  Volkswagen’s case, a situation where a car maker got tired of endless regulations and decided to connive their way through them?

The odd thing is, the models affected are little-known outside Japan (and number about 620,000 cars, 468,000 of which went to Nissan): the Mitsubishi eK Wagon and eK Space which, when Nissan-ised, become the DayZ and the DayZ Roox. I don’t know what these are; apparently they lie within the highly popular tax-dodge 660cc Kei car class, but that hasn’t stopped their sale from being immediately suspended by Nissan.

This is not a good look for Mitsubishi, which is still struggling to rebuild its reputation following a series of scandals in the mid-2000s that included stunts like covering up serious defects such as flawed axles that led to detached wheels and fuel tanks falling off cars. Besides a dramatic drop in sales and stock value, there is still the likelihood that there’ll be hell to pay. There might be the punitive charges imposed by the government (fines), they might have to refund all the tax rebates they enjoyed from the government as a result of the fake results, Nissan might throw a lawsuit in their face and who knows, Hans Berman Sobol Shapiro might just come up with another wordy tort. Mitsubishi needs to take a step back and seriously reconsider its position on some things.

(Update: Mitsubishi cooked up the findings by using unrealistic tyre pressures on the rolling road used in lab testing for fuel consumption. A rolling road is not entirely dissimilar to a dynamometer. While VW used complex software to cheat their way through emissions testing, Mitsubishi simply overinflated the tyres on the test cars to reduce rolling resistance and give good economy figures)

SUMMARY

The discovery of Volkswagen’s electronic sleight of hand opened the floodgates. Germany’s ADAC  (German Automobile Club) now started poking under other manufacturer’s skirts to see who else was being sub-truthful. Now, to put things in perspective: Germany’s ADAC is like our  own NationalTransport and Safety Authority (NTSA) if it had the willpower, motivation and resources that the FBI does. Nothing gets past their eye and soon more names cropped up: Jeep, Renault, Citroën, Hyundai, Fiat. Even the typically well-behaved Volvo was implicated.

VW is not the first to deploy technology to defeat tests. As far back as 1973, Chrysler, Ford, GM and VW (them again) used HVAC switches to beat emissions tests more or less the same way our PSVs have secret “switches”, allowing them to override speed limiters. Heavy equipment manufacturers in 1996 used basically the same tech VW did recently to produce different results in the lab and in the real world. Caterpillar, Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Mack, Navistar, Renault and Volvo trucks were caught up in this.

Similarly, Mitsubishi are not lone operatives in the cadre of automakers giving overly optimistic and, therefore, inapplicable fuel consumption figures. In 2014, Hyundai and KIA paid a combined $100 million (Sh10 bn) in 2014 for something similar, and were asked to refund customers the estimated difference in fuel costs. The perennial newsmaker, Ford, never misses from the action; notorious for overquoting horsepower figures some three or four decades back, they, too, ended up forking out roughly $200,000 (Sh20 million) in 2014 to cover for their wildly optimistic gas mileage statements, a mere pittance in comparison to what other automakers were hit with ($200,000 (Sh20 million) is just about the amount they will get from selling one Ford GT, so there).

The “Thermal Window”

It might sound like an obscure concept in physics. German authorities (them again!) tested 53 different diesel-powered cars and found that many Mercedes-Benz (those “gangsta” dudes), VW (VW), Porsche (also VW), Audi (also VW) and Opel (GM, which is American) produced excessive pollution. However, not all of them were illegal. In light of the preceding paragraphs, that may reek of a fetid case of double standards, but hold on a minute. This is where the thermal window comes in.

Volkswagen might have been the only one to use a cheat device but Mercedes (“gangstas”) and Opel also engaged in a little trickery of their own by making very good use of the thermal window. Now, automakers are allowed to dial back emissions control systems in order to prevent build-up of condensation in the catalytic convertor during low ambient temperatures. It is almost tied in with the engine running rich and at high idling speed from a cold start. Preventing accumulation of condensate in the catalytic converter has the preventative advantage of allaying rust build-up and premature cat failure. The temperature range across which automakers are allowed to tone down the emissions control systems is what is called the “thermal window”. Fair enough.

Don’t joke with people who take part in Formula One. They have perfected rule-bending to an art, and it, therefore, follows that Mercedes-Benz & Co. wasted no time in taking advantage. They saw an inch of daylight in that regulation and they decided to go for it. Nobody said how wide that window needed to be, so the car makers made it as wide as they wanted. One manufacturer (apparently not the “gangsta” Mercedes folks; Opel, maybe?) made theirs so wide, reaching as far up as 18C (64.4F).

In other words, those emissions control systems don’t come into play unless it’s quite warm outside, which, doesn’t happen that often.

It had become a farce: 630,000 vehicles have to be recalled. Sure, it is not legally wrong — after all, they did  give a window – but it is morally corrupt. The recall is meant to push automakers to put a check on the use of the thermal window, though there is no telling what effect it will have on catalyst lifespans of fuel economy.

The internal workings of the motoring industry are not as boring as they might seem on the surface. Even we have our own versions of tragicomedies and soap operas.

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