Auto emission: Tackle or perish

Tricky task: The government needs to keep pace with an auto industry ready to cut corners

Auto emission: Tackle or perish
The extent of cheating in Volkswagen emission fraud has triggered a debate on the prevalent standards of automobile emission norms in India. While we are years behind the high standards set by the developed economies, even the set levels are not being adhered to, especially when it comes to monitoring emission levels in vehicles. Upgrading our refineries should be on top of the government’s priorities.

When Volkswagen emission scam exploded last month, the aura of some of the dream diesel car brands of Volkswagen, Jetta, Beetle, Passat, and even Audi, faded.

These models were caught with “defeat devices” that cheated the certification tests in the US. Volkswagen has sold more than 11 million diesel cars across the US and Europe between 2009 and 2015 with nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission 10 to 40 times higher than the norm. The company admitted to cheating before the US authorities.

But the episode has exposed India’s vulnerability to technical compromises in emission management system of vehicles and weak emission regulations that if not addressed can worsen diesel emission and public health risk. 

Responding to the Volkswagen controversy, India has ordered a probe and the Automotive Research Association of India is expected to carry out the tests in the affected models.

But that is only part of the story. Can India ensure that vehicle certification system is strong enough to filter all frauds and many other discrepancies that compromise emission and set rules to make vehicles perform and meet benchmark all through their useful life on the roads?

Not doing this is not an option at a time when further improvement in emission standards to Euro V and Euro VI will bring more sophisticated emission control systems in India that if not monitored can underperform and lead to uncontrolled emission.

Only a couple of years ago, weakness in India’s vehicle certification system was exposed when General Motors sold Tavera SUV model between 2005 and 2012 - both BS-III and BS-IV variants - by tampering with the conformity of production processes and type approval tests for vehicle certification.

The company had pre-selected models for testing that were fitted with improved engines and got them tested against norms for a different weight category. While selling, they used the older engines and changed the weight class. When caught, and after the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways initiated a probe, the company admitted to the fraud and voluntarily recalled 1,14,000 units.

Have we learned from this episode and acted on it? The committee that was set up by the ministry to investigate this case recommended tightening of vehicle certification system. It particularly flagged off the wrong practice of pre-selection of car models by the manufacturers for testing that allows room for doctoring the samples. The committee therefore asked for more independent selection of car samples by the certification agencies from the factory as well as from the dealers. But it is not clear whether this has been implemented with adequate checks and balances.

Such experience has only exposed that only setting emission standards for new vehicles is not good enough. India needs a system of enforcement to independently check if the vehicles are deviating from the original norm in the real world.

The law should provide for an authority to check, issue recalls of vehicles by companies if they are non-compliant, levy fines and withdraw approval for sale to ensure that vehicles conform with the stated emission targets.

At present, India has very rudimentary on-road emission tests called “pollution under check certificate”. But there is no system of testing on-road vehicles to check for inherent technical faults for which the manufacturers are responsible. These discussions have become very important in India today as the policy decision on the future emission standards roadmap for vehicles and fuels is awaited.

The Auto Fuel Policy committee has given a “too little, too late” proposal – Euro V in 2021 and Euro VI in 2024-25. This lax roadmap is unacceptable at a time when India is motorising and dieselising rapidly based on outdated emission standards that are 12-16 years behind Europe.

Diesel cars that were a mere 4 per cent of the new car sales in 2000 are now more than half. The vehicle industry is pushing hard to delay adoption of Euro VI emission standards by another 10 years. The government will have to act quickly to advance Euro VI standards to 2020 as only at that level, diesel emissions are substantially low and begin to close the gap with petrol emission.

Opportunity to leapfrog

There is an opportunity to leapfrog as the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gas in its affidavit to the Supreme Court has stated that it is possible to supply fuel with 10 parts per million sulphur needed to meet Euro V and VI emission standards by 2020. If the fuel block is removed, there is no reason why the vehicle industry cannot leapfrog to Euro VI emission standards in 2020. Globally, emission standards are being tightened to clean up diesel emission which otherwise cause very high particulate and NOx emission. Diesel emission is also in the WHO list of class 1 carcinogens for its strong link with lung cancer.

This is the challenge in India today. While it will have to bring clean diesel fuel and technology quickly to cut the toxic risk, it will also need rules to make manufacturers responsible for the lifetime emission performance of vehicles. That is the lesson from the Volkswagen case. Even after cleaning up diesel emission, other countries are finding it difficult to make the technology perform in the real world to cut the toxic risk. Volkswagen cheated simply to circumvent the stringent emission standards in the US.

India needs to understand the perils of the diesel route. While the Volkswagen case is that of an intended fraud, more studies in Europe have found that several diesel brands are finding it harder to keep their real world emission low. Even after meeting the best emission standards, on-road NOx emission on an average are at least 7 to 10 times higher than the certified emission limit. Several European cities are failing to meet the targets of ambient air quality standards for NOx. The United Kingdom was dragged to the European Court of Justice for violating ambient NOx standards.

This has led to a serious backlash against diesel cars. Eight cities in the UK are banning diesel cars and more European cities are barring them inside towns. There is a serious rethink on diesel. India needs to act fast to cut both NOx and particulate matter that is rising in our cities. If it fails to make diesel technology improve and deliver on intended objective of emission reduction, it will not only increase public health risk but also business risk.

(The writer is Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)

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