Regulators in Germany have opened an investigation into alleged diesel exhaust rule circumvention on the part of BMW. Claims have been made that the automaker used an illegal defeat device on select models to achieve lower tailpipe emissions during testing. It’s a situation reminiscent of the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal from 2015. However, government regulators have been on the offensive ever since — roping in loads of manufacturers and leaving a subset of the public wondering whether modern emission laws are even tenable.
The Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA), Germany’s federal transport authority, has alleged that BMW X3 models equipped with the brand’s 2.0-liter diesel motor contain software designed to skirt emission regulations. According to German outlet Bild, the issue stems from a difference in emissions based upon the status of the HVAC system.
Regulators are concerned that software may have been designed to intentionally emit less nitrogen oxides when the air-conditioning system is switched off. This reportedly matters because federal testing usually remains deactivated, leading to suspicion that BMW used this as a window to skirt regulations. But that seems like an oversimplification of the situation.
Due to the improved aerodynamics associated with driving with the windows up, combustion vehicles typically see improved fuel economy at highway speeds while running the air conditioner. This should also translate to lower emissions over time. However, the inverse is true at low speeds or idle because of the extra strain added by the compressor. It’s not unusual to see reduced carbon dioxide emissions when a vehicle isn’t running the A/C.
The investigation follows an earlier report issued by German environmental group Deutsche Umwelt Hilfe (DUH), which stated the BMW X3 2.0d possessed an illegal defeat device that allowed vehicles to pollute more under certain conditions. Accusations were thrown that BMW’s diesel motor saw a larger drop in emissions when the vehicle’s A/C was switched off than usual, suggesting that it could be the result of software malfeasance — comparing it to what happened with Volkswagen’s diesel vehicles years earlier.
“It is shocking that even more than seven years after the diesel scandal became known, we are detecting the highest nitrogen oxide emissions we have measured to date in diesel vehicles in real driving conditions and are finding shutdown devices in the engine control software,” DUH’s Federal Managing Director Jürgen Resch stated in German.
However, things aren’t that simple. Jürgen has been a professional environmental lobbyist since the 1980s and Deutsche Umwelt Hilfe has taken major criticisms for endorsing driving bans, carbon credits, and targeting stringent emissions laws at the expense of what’s reasonably achievable. Jürgen himself has likewise been faulted as one of the many high-profile climate activists that have utilized private jets. There’s also a lot of political tension due to how the DUH is organized — especially in regard to its ties to the government, despite claiming status as an NGO.
The organization receives funding from the American ClimateWorks Foundation, the European Commission and the German federal government as part of an EU-wide campaign to reduce pollution. It has similarly taken heat for campaigning for the advancement of diesel particulate filters in 2005 after accepting donations from the very same companies that manufacture them. It even went out of its way to endorse specific brands, calling into question how objective it truly was as an influential environmental watchdog.
DUH has likewise received funding from automakers and occasionally partnered with companies on certain programs. While several have cut ties in more recent years (e.g. Daimler and Toyota), the organization continues to receives criticism for claiming to be a non-profit.
Still, the above doesn’t automatically mean the group hasn’t uncovered emissions cheating on the part of BMW. Its investigation into Volkswagen Group helped uncover software manipulation that had the vehicle’s running lean spending on wheel positioning (indicating that it was operating on a test rig). So there’s reason to believe it might have uncovered similar shenanigans here.
But it also played a role in killing demand for affordable diesel vehicles in both Europe and the United States. No matter how you slice it, Deutsche Umwelt Hilfe seems hellbent on ending diesel-based transportation and it’s difficult to overstate just how much influence it has over German regulators and the industry at large.
While BMW won’t say much about the current investigation, it did end 2023 stating it’s in contact with European authorities to clarify questions made about emissions following concerns about a specific BMW model produced between 2010 and 2014. Odds are good it was talking about the X3 with the 2.0-liter diesel.
BMW CEO Harald Krueger also previously said that the company had not manipulated any diesel engines following the initial allegations — perhaps hinting at its stance should any formal charges be pressed.
But your author is wondering whether or not anyone even cares at this point. Volkswagen was fined billions of dollars and the United States forced it into establishing a subsidiary to improve the national EV charging infrastructure. The company is known as Electrify America and it has consistently been the worst-ranked charging network in the country. VW has also struggled to effectively launch EVs as it pivoted toward electrification, despite remaining broadly profitable.
For all the effort put into emissions regulations, they arguably haven’t resulted in better automobiles. Consumer satisfaction surveys have been trending downward while prices continue to climb. Meanwhile, regulatory efforts seem focused on determining what type of vehicle you’ll be allowed to drive in the future and using regulatory fines to further shape the industry by pouring the money back into businesses that are ideologically aligned with the relevant NGOs.
Similar arguments can certainly be made about the oil industry. But it also appears to have bought into using environmentalism as a shield. Its lobbying efforts are also a little more blatant and the entities shilling for it don’t appear to have the government’s ear like they used to. The real issue is likely not which group is trying to influence policy but rather the fact that it’s happening on a corporate and/or political level. At the end of the day, too much of this just feels like a colossal waste of time and money without any noteworthy advantages trickling down to the consumer.
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