On 18 September 2015, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Volkswagen had confessed to using so-called ‘defeat device’ software in a number of vehicles in order to meet US air pollutant emissions standards. These devices feign better emission output when tested in the lab compared to on-the-road situations – where the cars gravely exceed the legal limits.
It soon became clear that the scale of the issue is global, with 11 million cars affected, including 8 million vehicles in Europe.
For BEUC and our members, two fundamental problems have to be tackled now in light of this massive scandal:
- Millions of consumers in Europe have bought a car that has an illegal device installed and does not match the specifications of the certificate of conformity and the sales contract. These consumers deserve to be compensated for their loss;
- The EU needs to build a surveillance system which would require truly independent and on-the-road testing. If we are to restore consumer trust in emissions and fuel consumption programmes, such a system needs to be implemented without delay.
- The EU needs to establish a collective redress procedure for all consumers across all European countries to provide victims of mass damage like in the VW fraud with a realistic perspective to pursue their rights.
Together with our member organisations we take action to help affected consumers get their car back in line with legal requirements – in a least disruptive way for them – and to receive compensation. At the same time, we are pushing the European institutions to ensure better car emission and fuel consumption testing standards and controls are put into place across the EU.
While Volkswagen’s unprecedented fraud has been centre-stage of the attention, it became clear that the problem of incorrect and potentially illegal NOx emissions is much broader. Only as recently as January 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that FIAT Chrysler had installed defeat devices in its vehicles. Dieselgate has brought to light that the car industry has been deliberately misleading millions of consumers and endangered our health. Political action to identify the causes of this fraud and find solutions to avoid it from happening again are critical to restore consumer trust not only in the car sector but also in European and national enforcement systems.
BEUC is coordinating the activities of national consumer organisations at the European level and also working closely with our sister organisation Consumers International at the global level. In tackling this vital issue for consumers, we have made our concerns known to key European stakeholders.
Letter to Ms. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, European Commission
On 22 September 2015, we sent a letter to Ms. Elżbieta Bieńkowska – European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs – asking her: “What plans does [the European Commission] have to improve the oversight of EU vehicle test procedures and will it launch an investigation into the possible use of installed software designed to manipulate type approval tests in the EU?”.
Letter to Mr. Matthias Müller, CEO of Volkswagen Group
In 2 October 2015, we also sent a letter to Mr. Matthias Müller – newly-appointed CEO of Volkswagen Group – in which we highlighted our concerns about the possible impact (including financial implications) for consumers. We also called on Volkswagen to take a number of actions that address the effects of this disappointing revelation to consumers.
Click here for our response to VW's reply letter.
Read the joint letter sent together with our German member vzvb to the German Federal Minister for Transport and Digital Infrastructure, Mr. Alexander Dobrindt.
Public conference: 'Fitness Check for the Car Sector'
In the presence of the European Commission’s Justice and Consumer Affairs Commissioner we held a public conference entitled 'Fitness Check for the Car Sector' to highlight how consumers suffered from the scandal and what steps need to be taken to correct consumer harm.
Second letter to Ms. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, European Commission
On 9 December 2016, BEUC issued a letter to Commissioner Bieńkowska responsible for transport in which it requested the European Commission to test cars before and after the recall. In its reply the Commission stated that it does not have the necessary powers to intervene directly through market surveillance activities such as car testing.
VW needs to take swift action to restore consumer trust by:
- Offering financial compensation for any damages caused by or related to the ‘defeat devices’ installed in vehicles purchased by consumers – including the value depreciation of the affected vehicles;
- Ensuring that car owners receive consistent and transparent information about the recall and providing full and detailed information of the technical analysis, the modifications to be made and the effects on the performance, safety, air pollutant emissions and fuel consumption;
- Fulfilling any other consumer claim based on consumer sales law, including cancellation and repayment of the purchase price or proportionate reduction of the purchase price and damages for any loss;
- Ensuring that any alterations or repair work conducted on affected cars will result in the emissions performance matching EU emissions limits based on real world performance without negative impact on the cars fuel consumption, durability or performance or any other feature.
We also think it is clear that an overhaul to the current EU testing regime is badly needed, if we are to restore consumer trust. To do so, it is essential that:
- The European Commission develops an on-the-road testing protocol of a car’s fuel consumption and CO₂ emissions;
- The type approval law currently on the table provides for a more robust market surveillance mechanism (incl. conformity-testing in-use vehicles and spot checks conducted by independent testing services and overseen by EU authorities).
See also our campaign page 'The great fuel consumption scam'. Existing fuel consumption test procedures allow car manufacturers to manipulate results. This is in turn used for fuel consumption claims which mislead consumers as to the true fuel consumption levels of their car. The consequence is paying more for fuel costs than reasonably expected. We reveal the tricks used by car manufacturers and the shockingly higher fuel consumption results. As part of the solution we are campaigning to speed up the process of adopting a new and more appropriate test.
In addition, the EU Commission should finally recognise that judicial collective redress procedures are the only way for consumers to obtain compensation in certain situations as in the VW fraud. With this in mind, we expect that the Commission will not delay the assessment of the 2013 Recommendation on horizontal principles for collective redress and will include the planning for further measures in their conclusions.
To provide you with the latest information on the emissions scandal, BEUC has composed this dedicated webpage as well as a Q&A, emphasising – amongst others – how European consumers are affected and what their rights are.
1. What has Volkswagen done wrong?
2. How many and which vehicles have been affected?
3. Why do air pollutant emissions matter?
4. Why didn’t authorities spot the defeat devices?
5. Why should the installation of defeat devices concern consumers?
6. What is the possible impact on an owner with an affected vehicle?
7. What rights do EU consumers have if their vehicles have been affected?
8. Should we expect other car makers of using defeat devices?
9. Is there also a problem about other car emissions such as CO2?
10. What legislative action is needed to improve vehicle testing?
11. What must Volkswagen do to restore trust amongst consumers?
12. Does the proposed repair affect a car's emissions or performance?
On the 18th September 2015 the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Volkswagen had confessed to using so called ‘defeat device’ software in a number of vehicles in order to meet US air pollutant emissions standards. The devices can sense when the car is being tested under official conditions and in turn will switch on emissions control systems to their fullest. When the car is not being tested and the car is being used on the road, emissions control systems will work at a lower capacity and in turn will lead to higher emissions.
The Volkswagen Group (including Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and Seat) has stated that 11 million vehicles have been affected globally, including an estimated 8 million vehicles in Europe. It has been reported that 5 million Volkswagen branded vehicles, 2.1 million Audis, 1.2 million Skodas, and 1.8 million vans in addition to 700,000 Seats have been affected.
The exhaust gasses emitted from motor vehicles include many air pollutants including nitrogen oxides (known as NOx for short – including nitric oxides and nitrogen dioxide). The amount of NOx that can be emitted by passenger cars are regulated under both US and European legislation and in high concentrations have been linked to the development of respiratory conditions such as asthma, reduced lung growth in children and bronchitis. NOx also contribute to eutrophication and can mean for severe environmental damage including reductions in water quality. Some affected Volkswagen Group diesel cars have been found to exceed US emission limits. Authorities in Europe are investigating if EU NOx emission limits have also been exceeded.
Evidence indicating the use of defeat devices was discovered by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) and West Virginia University after conducting emissions tests on vehicles using on-the-road emissions testing equipment. This evidence was presented to US authorities who in turn secured a confession from VW that defeat devices had been used. One of the problems with both US and EU testing regimes as things stand is that cars are mainly tested in laboratories which makes it difficult, if not impossible for authorities to discover the use of ‘defeat devices’ without conducting additional investigations.
For consumers, buying a passenger vehicle can be a complex process where upon multiple criteria will be considered. For many consumers the environmental and health impacts that can result from the emissions of air pollutants will be an important factor. In this regard, many consumers will have bought a vehicle based on the green claims made by car makers and in the understanding that the vehicle would have legally met emissions limits. They would also have bought the vehicles in the belief that the car’s emissions control systems would function in normal use as they would under official tests. In Europe, VW has admitted that diesel vehicles have been fitted with this defeat device software. There have also been reports that this software is able to recognise EU regulated tests.
Aside from the fact that vehicles with installed defeat devices will emit higher amounts of air pollutants than otherwise expected, a consequence of the use of the devices means that the vehicles will need to undergo some form of alteration or repair work in order to remove the devices and ensure that the car’s performance matches standards as laid out in promotional materials, the contract held with the owner, or as required under law.
First and foremost, consumers have the right to receive the vehicle with the specifications promised in the contract. Any repair work or alterations needed to accomplish conformity with the contract and to meet standards set out in marketing material or required under law, must be free of charge for consumers. Depending on the Member States’ law, consumers may be entitled to get compensated for the decreased vehicle (resale) value or have the contract rescinded.
On top of that, consumers should receive financial compensation. VW has deliberately deceived car owners into buying ‘dirty’ cars instead of the aspired and advertised ‘clean’ cars. European car drivers have been misled about the quality and performance features of their vehicles. They bought a car with a prohibited defeat device which they would otherwise probably not have purchased. And they suffer both economic damage (the potential loss in value of the cars) and health damage (higher than allowed output of dirty emissions). The level of distress suffered by owners of affected vehicles is also more than enough to expect financial compensation. Particularly because the majority of car owners are still waiting for the ‘repair’ of their car or have been left in the dark as to when the repair will take place.
Besides, national legislation might provide for additional rights.
German, French and US investigations have revealed excessive emissions for a range of other car manufacturers. Opel, Mercedes and Renault are – within different jurisdictions – conducting voluntary recalls. On 12 January 2017, the US EPA has announced that FIAT Chrysler installed defeat software in some of their vehicles. Until a full investigation is conducted into the possible use of ‘defeat devices’ amongst all car makers, it is not possible to say with any certainty that the use of ‘illegal’ defeat devices is restricted only to the Volkswagen Group. Such an investigation should be conducted at the European level and also inspect the use of defeat devices or similar tools for the purpose of influencing fuel consumption/CO2 emissions testing programmes. What is clear is that results from on-the-road tests have shown that diesel cars of different car makers are on average approximately seven times higher than the limits set by the Euro 6 emission standard (whereby cars are measured in laboratory conditions). And for fuel consumption, recent evidence shows that on average motorists across Europe are achieving a fuel consumption performance almost 40% higher on the road than when it is tested under official laboratory conditions.
The discovery of the defeat devices has added to longstanding concerns about manipulation of vehicle testing programmes. For example, concerning the measuring of CO2 emissions and fuel consumption in the EU, there are numerous tactics that car makers can employ to improve their official values such as over inflating tyres, using special lubricants and removing the car’s alternator which will all improve test results and in turn meaning car owners end up paying more in fuel costs than otherwise expected (see ‘the Great Fuel Consumption Scam’ for more info). Over the past 15 years the situation has been getting worse as research undertaken by the ICCT has shown that the gap between official figures and real-world figures has grown from 8% in 2001 to 42% in 2015 Altroconsumo, our Italian member, tested two cars (a VW Golf and a Fiat Panda) following the official testing procedure resulting in emission figures up to 50% above the car makers’ advertisements – a difference which could not be explained with known test flexibilities.
The European Commission needs to develop an on-the-road testing protocol of a car’s fuel consumption and CO2 emissions and also to develop a more robust market surveillance mechanism. On this latter point, there needs to be requirements for conformity testing in-use vehicles (i.e. not just type approval vehicles as currently is required) and involving spot checks conducted by independent testing services and overseen by EU authorities.
- Ensure that a full recall of the vehicles affected in Europe will be communicated in a consistent and transparent way to the owners, providing a full and detailed information on the nature, content and purpose of the technical analysis and modifications to be made and on their aftermath and effects on the performance, safety and standard requirement (namely the ones on gas emissions) of the vehicles concerned;
- Offer in any case timely financial compensation for any damages caused by or related to the ‘defeat devices’ installed in vehicles purchased by consumers – including the depreciation of the value of the affected vehicles;
- Ensure that any alterations or repair work conducted on affected cars will result in the emissions performance matching EU emissions limits based on real world performance, or, where lower, the advertised emission levels for the relevant vehicle;
- Ensure the fulfilment of any other consumer claim based on consumer sales law, including cancellation and repayment of the purchase price or proportionate reduction of the purchase price and damages for any loss.
The recall measures which are proposed by Volkswagen Group have to be validated by the respective type approval authority (e.g. the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt in Germany). However, a test by Italian consumer group Altroconsumo, a BEUC member organisation, of an Audi Q5 showed an increase of NOx emissions after the removal of the defeat device (They were 25% higher than legal limits allow). The German magazine Auto Motor Sport in their May 2016 edition showed that the fuel consumption of a “repaired” VW Amarok increased by 0.5 litre per 100 kilometre when tested on the road.
These test results are very concerning because they indicate that the fix proposed by VW is either not working or is having a detrimental impact on the performance of some of the affected cars. Furthermore, little is known about the long term impacts of removing the defeat device on the vehicles and the durability of the emissions control systems that should now be working in the real world. This is why BEUC has called on the German testing agency who approved the fix, but also their national counterparts, to urgently re-examine the solutions to repair the affected cars and that they publish these results.
Across Europe, BEUC member organisations have been following the VW scandal closely, providing advice to consumers and calling on the automaker to put in place measures that would restore trust in the company. Four of our members, in countries where such legal procedures exist, have brought groups actions to court to claim compensation for affected consumers:
Test-Achats/Test-Aankoop launched its judicial action on 15 June 2016. Affected consumers can subscribe via the organisation’s website. The counter is currently at 11,000 consumers.
In Italy, Altroconsumo is defending more than 28,000 affected car owners in court. The court case of Altroconsumo is bolstered by their test of an Audi Q5 after the removal of the defeat device revealed that NOx emissions were 25% higher than legal limits allow.
Italy is so far the only European country where a public body fined Volkswagen for using unfair commercial practices and misconduct in the Dieselgate scandal.
The Lithuanian consumer group will sue VW in a German court in order to obtain compensation for consumers. Affected car owners in Lithuania can register their claim on the platform myRight.
DECO Proteste has filed a lawsuit against VW, SEAT and the Portuguese main importer SIVA in October 2016. The law suit, filed in October 2016, comes in addition to its petition to the Portuguese Ministry of the Environment to investigate the fraud and define sanctions.
The Slovak consumer group will sue VW in a German court in order to obtain compensation for consumers. Affected car owners in Slovakia can register their claim on the platform myRight.
The Slovene consumer group will sue VW in a German court in order to obtain compensation for consumers. Affected car owners can register their claim directly with ZPS.
On 19 July 2016, BEUC member OCU filed a class action against VW-Audi Spain Group which has – so far – been joined by 6,500 of its members. At the beginning of 2017, OCU tried to reach a settlement but Volkswagen did not present itself for the hearing scheduled to that purpose by the Madrid court.
The Swiss consumer group will sue VW in a German court in order to obtain compensation for consumers. Affected car owners in Switzerland can register their claim on the platform myRight.
On 28 September 2016 BEUC organised the "Fitness check on the car sector in Europe – Vehicles testing and emission scandal" conference. The goal of the conference was to take stock about the consumer detriment of the dieselgate scandal, the ongoing investigation into the car sector and what solutions exist to clean up the car sector in Europe.
The first outcome of the conference already happened on the same day. European Commissioners Věra Jourová and Elżbieta Bieńkowska issued a statement in support for consumers to obtain compensation from Volkswagen. This statement echoes the Commissioner’s remarks when speaking at our conference. While the Volkswagen scandal was the obvious elephant in the room, a much broader range of issues was addressed during the day: From policy-makers’ and industry’s response to the ensuing scandals to vehicle type approval and consumer redress.
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