Europe’s Auto Makers Keep Test Firms Close – Wall Street Journal
The scramble to tighten rules on emissions tests following Volkswagen AG
’s diesel-engine scandal is laying bare a system in which car makers pay the very firms that test and certify their vehicles.
That system relies on the use of so-called “golden vehicles,” stripped down prototypes that car makers send to testing firms for inspection. The practice, which officials for car makers and testing firms say is widespread, allows car models to undergo tests before they are fitted with everything from back seats to wheels with heavier tread, boosting fuel efficiency and lowering emissions.
“It’s like preparing for a major race. We tune them and pamper them like stud horses,” said an executive from one of Europe’s leading auto makers, adding that car companies never submitted random vehicles drawn from the assembly lines for testing.
The relationship between car makers and testing firms raises questions about how closely manufacturers can work with the companies without influencing test results. On Wednesday, the French government announced plans to test 100 vehicles drawn directly from car owners and rental agencies.
Executives from the auto industry and the testing firms say the use of golden vehicles and other practices don’t amount to cheating, because they aren’t banned by European rules.
“A client pays for the testing, not the test results. If we were lax…we would lose our license and thus our business,” said an official from a testing company in Germany.
Representatives for Volkswagen and PSA Peugeot Citroën
said the companies needed time to study the issue before commenting. Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles
NV and Renault SA
declined to comment, and Daimler AG
couldn’t be reached to comment.
said it “does not manipulate or rig any emissions tests,” and would be “willing to discuss our testing procedures with all relevant authorities and to make our vehicles available for testing any time.”
Industry and environmental watchdogs say the commercial ties between car makers and testing firms allow them to wield too much influence over test results.
“A car maker is free to choose who does the test, and the testing houses are commercial companies who rely on the car makers,” said Jos Dings, director of the Brussels-based environmental group Transport & Environment. “There is no incentive to be tough on car makers,” he added
‘There is no incentive to be tough on car makers.’
The rules for testing emissions across the Continent are set by the European Union, but the economic bloc doesn’t have an authority like the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency to perform spot checks that can catch abuse.
EU rules require testing to take place in a lab under controlled conditions so that results don’t vary across the Continent, but the bloc doesn’t require the test cars to be fully equipped. The rules specify testing during manufacturing—before new models hit the streets—but industry insiders say that rarely happens.
A spokesman for the European Commission didn’t respond to requests for comment. The EU is phasing in a new requirement in 2016 for auto makers to conduct an emissions test that measures how much pollutants cars emit when actually being driven on real roads, but those tests won’t yet determine whether a new car model is approved for sale in the region.
Because enforcement is handled by national governments, the implementation of EU rules varies from country to country, fostering testing standards that analysts say are lax and easy to manipulate. Cars approved in one country also can be sold throughout the EU.
“We observe the legal requirements in each country and fulfill all local testing guidelines and procedures,” said the spokesman for BMW.
‘We apply the current rules in place. ’
In France, car makers rely on a single testing firm, UTAC, while oversight of the process is handled by national environmental and transportation authorities, said François Roudier, a spokesman for CCFA, a French auto manufacturers association.
Marie-France Mutti, a UTAC spokeswoman, declined to comment. “We’re in the midst of working on our protocols,” she said
Once a testing firm certifies a model, Mr. Roudier said, cars aren’t tested again unless a modification is made to the engine in a model update, he added.
In Germany, the federal motor transport authority, known as KBA, certifies new car models. But the authority, which is overseen by the transport ministry, doesn’t have its own testing facilities. KBA relies on at least four private companies to conduct tests: Tüv Süd, Tüv Nord, Tüv Rheinland, Dekra.
KBA can pick which of the test companies inspect a new car model. But the authority often assigns the same testing firm to work with a manufacturer on different models, said one official from a testing company, adding that car makers pay for the test.
When a model passes a test, the results are handed to the KBA for certification. Car makers also pay a small fee to the motor traffic office. “We apply the current rules in place,” said a KBA spokesman.
‘All car makers without exception optimize their cars.’
“We apply the current rules in place,” said a KBA spokesman.
Golden vehicles are often deprived of standard equipment, such as air bags and air conditioning units, according to testing officials.
One particular area of attention in the tests is car tires. Vehicles used in tests are fitted with special tires that don’t last long on real road but provide ultralow resistance during lab tests.
The test vehicles and measures used in labs can help lower exhaust emissions by between 20% and 35% over standard road-equipped vehicles, the executive for the major European car maker said.
“All car makers without exception optimize their cars,” said the official from a German testing firm.
—Christopher Alessi and Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to his article.