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NOx emissions recall of German cars leaves fleet operators in the dark

Mercedes-Benz recall to reduce NOx emissions.

Fleet operators have been left in the dark by three German manufacturers’ plans to recall millions of cars across Europe to clean up NOx emissions.

So far, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen Group have failed to provide details on which vehicles are affected or the possible implications for owners. 

The recalls are likely to result in significant downtime for businesses if their vehicles are taken off the road to be fixed. An alternative option of carrying out the fix during a scheduled service means taking cars to the main dealer, something not all fleets do, especially those with their own workshops.

Paul Tate, fleet manager at Siemens, said he has had no communication from his vehicle provider and has only heard from one manufacturer. “It’s been very quiet and we would like to know more as soon as possible, before drivers start asking questions,” he added.

Keith Cook, deputy financial controller at Computacenter, is in a similar position. He said: “I’ve not seen anything from these manufacturers, but the interventions are expected and we would advise our drivers to ensure any modifications are performed at the next service.”

Nick Molden, CEO of Emissions Analytics, told Fleet News there is very little the manufacturers can do to improve the emissions of cars without costly physical modifications. “We don’t know for certain, but a good guess is some kind of software update to adjust the operation of either the AdBlue system or lean NOx trap,” he said.

AdBlue is a solution of water and urea which is injected in microscopic quantities into the exhaust of some Euro 6 cars to break down gases that can be harmful.

Adjustments to the AdBlue concentration – via a software update – could reduce NOx emissions, but Molden warned it will lead to increased AdBlue consumption.

Cars fitted with an NOx trap – an extra filter in the exhaust system – can also be adjusted to further reduce emissions, but Molden said this could lead to increased fuel consumption and affect the longevity of the engine.

The fixes only apply to Euro 6 cars. For Euro 5 models the modification is likely to involve adjustments to the operation of the exhaust gas recirculation valve, something Molden believes could have the biggest impact on fuel consumption and, possibly, performance.

BMW has confirmed it will only recall Euro 5 vehicles, claiming its Euro 6 engines “employ a combination of various components [AdBlue and NOx trap] to treat exhaust emissions meaning there is no reason to recall or upgrade the software”.

It confirmed the upgrade for Euro 5 vehicles will be available at no extra cost, but it was unable to provide further information.

Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, has stated that its “voluntary service action” will be applicable to current Euro 5 and Euro 6 diesel engines and estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of UK models sold between January 2011 and September 2015 will be affected.

There is already an existing service action available to drivers of A-Class, B-Class, CLA and GLA models with the 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, to further reduce NOx output.

A spokesperson told Fleet News it will be contacting leasing companies and customers to inform them of the software update – which is expected to take around an hour to install.

Volkswagen Group, which already has a large number or recalls for emissions-related fixes ongoing, has also announced that its V6 and V8 TDI units will be eligible for new software to improve emissions in real-world driving. This is likely to affect drivers of Audi A4, A6, A7, A8, Q5 and Q7 models with the 3.0-litre engine and Q7 with a 4.3-litre V8 engine. A number of Volkswagens and Porsches may also be affected.

Steve Winter, head of fleet at Centrica, has a large Volkswagen van fleet. He said: “We estimate we may have around 900 affected cars on our fleet. Added to the existing VW recalls, that’s more than 10,000 vehicles that need to be modified.

“When I challenged them about downtime I was told the work could be carried out during routine maintenance. It’s not ideal because it means they have to be serviced at the main dealer.”

Tate added: “As long as there is no impact on performance I think the drivers will be happy to take the cars in. If everyone goes at once it’s going to be chaos so there needs to be some more communication.”

Leasing companies have remained tight-lipped over the situation.

However, Gerry Keaney, chief executive of the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), which represents contract hire companies that own thousands of the affected vehicles, said: “We welcome any manufacturers’ initiatives to reduce harmful NOx emissions.”

Molden estimates the modifications could reduce NOx levels from between four or five times the legal limit to between two and three times. “There are more than 10 million Euro 5 and Euro 6 cars across the EU which, on average, emit more than five times the legal NOx limits.” 

He added that German cars “are certainly not the worst”.

“Cities will have major air issues, but diesel bans will panic buyers which the manufacturers don’t want,” Molden said. “By carrying out these updates they are trying to mitigate the risk of large bans, but it won’t work unless the entire industry gets on board.”

The future of diesel-powered cars and vans in the UK is already in jeopardy due to the Government’s new air quality bill (fleetnews.co.uk, July 26). It outlined a plan to ban the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel vehicles (excluding hybrids), by 2040 (see page 8).

Furthermore local authorities will be under pressure to control inner-city emissions in the next few years and will have the power to impose access restrictions on vehicles, such as charging zones or measures to prevent certain vehicles using particular roads at certain times.

Molden said: “There needs to be more focus on the real-world emissions. If you target the vehicles that perform the worst in those scenarios there is a greater chance of achieving cleaner air.”

The recall comes amid allegations that five German carmakers – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen – may have worked together to fix the prices of diesel emissions treatment systems during industry committee meetings. 

The European Commission (EC) confirmed that antitrust regulators were investigating a possible German auto industry cartel following a tip-off.

However, BMW issued a statement saying “the objective of discussions with other manufacturers concerning AdBlue tanks was the installation of the required tanking installation in Europe”.

EC investigators conducted a similar investigation into truck makers last year, when five major manufacturers were collectively fined £2.44 billion (€2.93bn) for price-fixing over the previous 14 years.

The price-fixing related specifically to the market for the manufacturing of medium trucks (weighing between 6 to 16 tonnes) and heavy trucks (weighing more than 16 tonnes).

The EC investigation revealed that MAN, Volvo/Renault, Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Iveco and DAF had engaged in the cartel.

The collusion identified by the commission concerned the new emission technologies required by the Euro III to Euro VI environmental standards, specifically coordination on timing and coordination on passing on of costs of emission technologies for trucks compliant with newly introduced emissions standards. However, the collusion was not aimed at avoiding or manipulating compliance with the new emission standards. 

 

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Comments

  • matthewr88 - 07/08/2017 10:59

    Hi all, I've been advising my drivers not to get the "fix" done on their cars as in order to correct the co2/NOx issue there has to be a trade off in terms of efficiency and power. If there was a way they could reduce co2/NOx with a software update or minor adjustment don't you think they would have done that when the car was built? So I've told all staff (180+) at our company to refuse the fix or ignore recall letters referencing the fix. Although there is nothing to stop the dealerships putting the fix on vehicles when they go in for a routine service, so who knows. Matt

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