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        IMA

Lessons learnt from the emissions breach

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The failure of the automotive industry to contain emissions has sparked stricter emissions tests and the reprise of low-NOx (mono-nitrogen oxides) technologies for diesel-run vehicles that emit high levels of toxic fumes, say Angelica Buan and Elaine Cotoner in this report.

We totally screwed up.” Volkswagen Group of America CEO Michael Horn made this admission after the company was caught rigging its vehicles to outsmart emissions tests.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered in 2015 that 482,000 Volkswagen (VW) diesel cars in the US were emitting 40 times the allowable amounts of NOx. This is between 10,392 to 41,571 of NOx emissions each year, based on the new 2016 emission standards.

The German car company hinted that a total of 11 million cars worldwide have done the same and likely to have spewed out 237,161 to 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions every year, since 2009. The EPA issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to VW last September.

As a consequence, VW has been penalised with up to US$18 billion fines (excluding the costs of fixing the cars and providing compensation to customers). It is also currently recalling 482,000 cars in the US and in Europe.

Inhalation of NOx, which is created during combustion, especially at high temperatures, can cause respiratory problems such as bronchitis and emphysema, or in extreme cases, death.

VW later issued a statement to say it is working at full speed to clarify irregularities concerning the software used in diesel engines. It said, “New vehicles from the Volkswagen Group with EU6 diesel engines currently available in the European Union comply with legal requirements and environmental standards. The software in question does not affect handling, consumption or emissions.”

A device that can bend the rules

But just how did millions of defective cars roll out undiscovered under the EPA’s nose? The answer is a clever piece of engineering called the “defeat device”.

Since 2009, the defeat device has been fitted in VW-manufactured Audi A3 and VW-branded Jetta, Beatle, Golf, and Passat cars. The software can detect if the cars are put under EPA test conditions and kicks in a safe mode that reports lower NOx readings than in normal conditions.

The EPA tests emissions by putting vehicles on dynamometers (or car-sized treadmills) and letting them run on constant speeds. Vehicles with defeat devices can recognise if they are on a treadmill and kicks in the “dyno calibration”, which uses a NOx filter to emit fewer pollutants compared to the normal “road calibration”.

The mechanism was discovered when the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a nongovernmental organisation, did an independent test on the VW Passat, VW Jetta and the BMW X5, manufactured by another German car maker BMW.

The ICCT tests were conducted over five pre-defined routes categorised based on their predominant driving conditions (highway, urban/suburban, and rural-up/ downhill driving). Based on the ICCT test results, “realworld NOx emissions from the Jetta exceeded the EPA standard by 15 to 35 times. For the Passat, real-world NOx emissions were 5 to 20 times the standard. The BMWX5 was generally at or below the standard, and only exceeded it during rural uphill operating conditions.”

John German, US programme lead for the ICCT, said the difference between the test and real-world performance of these vehicles put those vehicles that comply with the standards at a competitive disadvantage. He stressed that this makes the job of the EPA so important.

Meanwhile, Asian cars were not spared. Diesel-run models of Honda, Mazda, and Mitsubishi were also found to be emitting higher NOx levels on real-road tests.

Debugging emissions testing in Asia

The emissions scandal shook the foundations not only of Volkswagen but the entire car industry. The EPA testing methods have been criticised for being out-dated.

The EPA announced that it is fool-proofing its diesel tests. Thus, it is adding on-road testing to its regimen, “using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device”, like the ones on the VW vehicles.

The European Commission (EC) will also enforce new laboratory tests for petrol and diesel vehicles. They will also have portable, on-road testing systems by 2017.

Obviously, the incident exposed what might otherwise have been an overlooked flaw in testing standards. Now, testing standards have not only become stricter, but authorities have vowed to become more vigilant in implementing emission limits.

While VW’s misstep gave tailwinds for competitor Asian car makers such as South Korea’s Hyundai and Kia; and Japan’s Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Mazda, testing standards for cars are being reviewed, and if necessary, revamped, according to authorities.

The region follows emissions standards, but then again, implementation monitoring is suggested, said Clean Air Asia, an international non-governmental organisation that promotes air quality for cities across Asia.

In a presentation at the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles Global Partners’ Meeting in 2014, the NGO, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), cited a few of the dialogues it has launched to reduce emissions levels in Asian cities.

Among these are the National Forum on the Lead Phase-Out in Myanmar; motor fuel desulphurisation by shifting to 50 ppm fuels; cost-benefit analysis on fuel quality and fuel economy policies in Indonesia; and finalisation of national road maps for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Aside from emissions testing, other initiatives that safeguard air quality from toxic vehicle emissions are being rolled out in other parts of Asia, according to UK-headquartered Global Fuel Economy Initiatives (GFEI), a partnership of the International Energy Agency (IEA), UNEP, International Transport Forum of the OECD (ITF), ICCT, Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis, and the FIA Foundation.

In 2011, GFEI and UNEP also signed a deal with Vietnam’s Ministry of Transport to develop Vietnam’s fuel economy standards. As a result, the proposed National Fuel Consumption Limits for Motorcycles, Mopeds and Light Duty Vehicles have been adopted as voluntary standards by the Directorate for Standards, Metrology and Quality (STAMEQ) in early 2014.

Over in India, the Low Carbon Mobility Planning project of UNEP contributed to the adoption of national fuel efficiency standards in the country, according to GFEI. In early 2013, the Indian Fuel Efficiency Standards for light-duty vehicles was imposed, relating to improving fuel efficiency of cars by about 18%, from the average of 14.1 km/litre to 17.3 km/litre and from 15.5 km/litre to 19.9 km/litre, for diesel cars by 2015.

Meanwhile, at the heels of the VW fiasco, Volkswagen Group India recently conducted its own vehicle emissions evaluations on its fleet models. A spokesperson of the company explained that due to the complex combination of several brands, various models, different engine variants and gearboxes as well as different model years that need to be analysed, it could require a longer time to establish detailed findings.

Technologies to curb emissions

Not only was the incident an eye opener for the industry, but some component manufacturers actually viewed it as a window of opportunity.

Germany-headquartered Bosch Technology has developed a new hybrid technology for vehicles that will significantly reduce emissions from diesel engines.

Called a boost recuperation system, it uses electrification to reduce NOx emissions by up to 80%, while also cutting CO2 output by up to 15%. The 48V system cuts NOx emissions at the point of combustion. According to Bosch, is set to close the persistent and sizeable gap between start-stop systems and hybrid drives.

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Bosch UK CEO Steffen Hoffmann stated that the new boost recuperation system will enable drivers to kick in some extra torque of 150 Nm, while also protecting the environment. He projected that by 2020 around 4 million new vehicles equipped with the system could be sold in Europe, North America, and China.

Another earth-saving technology is the Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), an advanced active emissions control technology system used in clean diesel engines. It injects a liquid-reductant agent through a special catalyst into the exhaust stream of a diesel engine. The reductant source is usually automotive-grade urea, otherwise known as Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF). The DEF sets off a chemical reaction that converts NOx into nitrogen, water and tiny amounts of CO2, natural components of the air we breathe, which are then expelled through the vehicle tailpipe. The mechanics of the technology is explained by Diesel Technology Forum (DTF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of diesel engines, fuel and technology.

SCR technology is designed to permit NOx reduction reactions to take place in an oxidising atmosphere. It is called “selective” because it reduces levels of NOx using ammonia as a reductant within a catalyst system. The chemical reaction is known as “reduction” where the DEF is the reducing agent and it can be rapidly broken down to produce the oxidising ammonia in the exhaust stream. SCR technology alone can achieve NOx reductions up to 90%, DTF stated.

According to DTF, the SCR technology is one of the most cost-effective and fuel-efficient technologies available to help reduce diesel engine emissions. Its effectiveness allows diesel engines to be tuned and optimised toward maximum fuel efficiency, while the SCR systems are highly efficient at treating the engine-out exhaust.

SCR is not new. It has been used for decades to reduce stationary source emissions from various industrial operations, said DTF. In addition, marine vessels worldwide have been equipped with the SCR technology, including cargo vessels, ferries and tugboats.

It is also being recognised as the emissions control technology for heavy-duty vehicles and Tier 4 emissions standard for engines found in off-the-road equipment. SCR systems are also found in the growing number of diesel passenger vehicles.

Turning over a new leaf, VW will also be optimising the benefits of SCR in its new diesel run-fleets. It said that it will use the more expensive Adblue, or Aqueous Urea Solution 32.5% (AUS32), with SCR to reduce emissions of NOx in Europe and North America as soon as possible. “Diesel vehicles will only be equipped with exhaust emissions systems that use the best environmental technology,” it added. AdBlue is a fluid based on urea that is injected into the exhaust pipeline where it vaporises and neutralises the nitrogen oxide in the catalytic converter.

Cleaning up with fuel-efficient cars – enter electric cars

Diesel engines emit less CO2 compared to petrol engines, but more of the other harmful pollutants like NOx. Environmentalists and policy makers have long been focused on reducing carbon emissions and the diesel engine was actually hailed as the cleaner alternative, up until recent years.

Debates over diesel and its harmful emissions have been brewing in the car industry for years, but was give headline space after the VW emissions scandal. Some experts see this as an opening for electric vehicles to snag the dieseldistrusting market.

In Europe, where diesel cars constitute 50% of the market, demands are shifting to electric vehicles. The Institute of the Motor Industry surveyed 2,000 car owners in the UK weeks after the VW emissions incident and found that 53% of drivers were considering buying or leasing an electric or hybrid vehicle.

Enquiries for electric vehicles rose in the UK weeks after the VW incident, according to the rental company Flexed. co.uk. More people were renting mostly pure all-electric vehicles rather than plug-in hybrids.

Cities are also helping the shift by restricting diesel vehicles in polluted areas. For example, Paris plans to ban diesel cars from 2020. London’s ultra-low emissions zone is planning to do the same thing come 2020. Other cities may follow suit.

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Meanwhile, car companies like Volvo, Toyota, and Aston Martin are making advances on electric and hybrid cars.

Volvo is developing an all-electric car to hit the market by 2019. The company plans to release plug-in hybrid versions of its 90-series and 60-series cars.

Toyota recently launched the hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan in line with the hit movie “Back to the Future’s” 30th anniversary. Toyota is also targeting a 90% reduction of its emissions by 2050. It plans to produce more than 30,000 fuel-cell vehicles per year by 2020.

Aston Martin released an all-electric vehicle called the RapidE, and is envisioning James Bond character driving an all-electric car in the next movie created from the book series by Ian Fleming.

Not lagging behind is VW, which is rekindling the failed Pheaton electric luxury sedan. It also launched the Tiguan GTE, a plug-in electric hybrid, at the Frankfurt Motor show last September. It features a solar panel roof to assist in charging the lithium-ion battery units, and is said to go up to 50 km as a full electric.

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Asia too gets in the game of fuel efficient cars

In Asia, fuel efficiency in vehicles is also being harnessed to promote cleaner air. In Indonesia, GFEI stated that a public campaign to promote cleaner and more efficient fuel in vehicles has been started by the Komite Penghapusan Bensin Bertimbel (KPBB). The initiative, a part of the agreement KPBB signed with the Ministry of Environment and UNEP in 2013, included dialogue with relevant stakeholders, cost-benefit analysis on cleaner fuels and fuel economy. It envisages a net benefit of US$70 billion and potential fuel savings for the next two decades when fuel efficiency standards are adopted.

Last but not the least, the country is implementing a fuel economy labelling scheme as well as tax incentives for manufacturers of eco-cars.

Thailand likewise has its eco-car programme, which unfortunately saw demand in the first phase failing to pick up. But a second phase may be the cue as it will cover hybrid and electric vehicle types to offer more options to buyers, according to US-based research house IHS Automotive.

The long-term effects of the NOx emissions scandal may take years to realise. But the incident may be the first toppling piece of what might be a decades-long domino effect, which ultimately will result in a tightly run automotive industry.

(IMA)


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