Revenue inspectors are always a step behind smart accountants; legislation can’t keep up with clever engineers. Only this week vacuum cleaner James Dyson is challenging Bosch for outflanking EU energy strictures. Bosch? There’s a coincidence. It supplies VW with engine control systems and is among founders of a 2007 lobby group bent on laundering diesel’s dirty linen. Colin Chapman outwitted the FIA’s draftees on Formula 1 rules, by inventing go-faster gambits they had never thought of arguing that if something wasn’t specifically forbidden then it must be permitted. (see the spindly wings on the grid of the South African Grand Prix, above)
Dieselgate isn’t entirely Volkswagen’s fault. Rules drawn up by governments’ draftsmen were always anomalous and open to interpretation by motivated technicians.
Go back to the 1960s when Green campaigners cleared photo-chemical smog from Los Angeles. London had banished pea-soupers by legislating against coal fires so, since prohibitions seemed to work, the Green lobbyists got down to it. Unfortunately they were not very bright, muddling carbon emissions with worries about unleaded petrol, and became so over-heated about global warming they rushed through calls to ban this and outlaw that. Nervy politicians saw votes and decided Something Had to be Done. And At Once. The Greens were obsessively Urgent.
Beware what you wish for. Without thinking it through, some Greenies ended up lobbying for more diesels and, egged on by industrialists like Johnson Matthey, grew preoccupied with catalytic converters. As my former technical editor at The Motor, the late Joe Lowrey put it, “The truly green way to minimise pollution is to burn less fuel.”
Under ‘environmental’ pressure administrations rushed through legislation bringing in catalytic converters because they didn’t know any better. Research on 'lean burn' engines that reduced exhaust fumes by cutting fuel consumption was diverted. The costly rhodium and platinum equipment that turned exhaust gases into water carbon dioxide and nitrogen were a crude stop-gap that increased fuel consumption and slowed cars down. Widespread adoption fostered the idea that pollution was dealt with and engines with far lower toxic emissions were neglected.
Engineers had to be tasked instead with meeting US and European statutes on catalytic converters. Car manufacturers were obliged to meet hastily drawn-up legal requirements, providing essentially a second-best to burning less hydrocarbon fuel. Governmental ‘Scientific experts’ should have contradicted the muddled Greenies but were coerced into drawing up what politicians, also convinced by Johnson Matthey, thought was the only solution. Meanwhile the Greenies continued to lobby for more diesels.
What the ‘experts’ either failed to pass on or, in their anxiety to please the politicos ignored, was that ‘clean’ diesels came with side-effects. “Don’t worry,” their masters told them, “fix a test that will satisfy the greens.” They were told to devise a trial that diesel engines had to pass. Laws were once again laid down and it scarcely mattered that engineers could spot anomalies and to make tests fair and repeatable they were going to be complicated. VW had already cheated on emissions tests in 1973 with engines that turned off smog controls when cold; GM was fined for much the same on Cadillacs; Ford and Honda paid Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fines in 1995. Tests had to be the same for everybody; so they had to be done in a laboratory. (Petrol-engined VWs - above)
The solution was the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), dating from the 1970s when cars were smaller although modified in 1997 to reflect European driving. Ideally a test would be on a long straight road with no weather, but for practicality had to be relegated to roller tests with a fan blowing to simulate speed. A tester at the wheel follows a stopwatch pattern of gear shifting and speed limits to achieve results recalculated for different models. There is no motorway driving, economy settings drivers rarely use are allowed, air conditioning and heated windows are switched off and there is a 1.2mph speed tolerance. Roof rails and passenger door mirrors are removed, tyres inflated to reduce rolling resistance and there are no officials present. Car companies can adjust their own results by 4% to make things look better still.
In their anxiety to create a fair test ‘experts’ and politicos between them created a completely unrealistic test. It is scarcely surprising that bright-eyed engineers spotted an extra tweak that, like Colin Chapman with his flaky inventions of aerodynamic downforce could be brought in, because green-tinted boffins hadn’t thought of prohibiting them. So let us step back a moment from the shrill condemnation, repeated in the current issue of Which? about manufacturers’ fuel consumption ‘claims’ against what cars do in the real world. Let us remind ourselves that these ‘claims’ are a spin-off from the imposition of Official Fuel Consumption figures many years ago. They too are based on the NEDC roller test-bed charade that the cars makers did not much like in the first place but illustrates perfectly the confusion that comes with lobby groups of every shade from green-hued pinkos to true blues leading politicians up garden paths.
Did we see this mess coming? Of course we did. Here’s what I wrote for The Sunday Times of 16 June 1991.
Pollution ‘quick fix’ creates a motoring myth
Legislation on catalytic converters may be delaying 'lean burn' engines which reduce exhaust fumes by cutting fuel consumption. Enthusiasm for the expensive rhodium and platinum equipment being built into the exhaust pipes of new cars has delayed something better - reducing pollution by more efficient engines.
The expensive stainless steel canisters which turn exhaust gases into water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are a relatively crude stop-gap. They increase fuel consumption, and foster the notion that pollution is being dealt with, while research into engines with far lower toxic emissions remains in abeyance.
Researchers have not lost sight of the 'lean-burn' goal, but having been preoccupied with meeting US and European statutes demanding catalytic converters, there has been little progress. Car manufacturers have had to meet hastily drawn-up legal requirements which may turn out second-best to a global policy of burning smaller quantities of hydrocarbon fuel.
"Catalytic converters were no more than a 'quick fix'," according to one senior motor industry engineer. "They were adopted by environmentalists when there was little else available and laws were pushed through before anybody had a chance to develop an alternative. Now they are mandatory and better solutions are not coming forward. Everybody was in such a hurry to be seen to be doing something that we have ended up with a second-best by law."
Joseph Lowrey BSc (Eng) a notable technical writer on the motor industry, describes the sort of engineering that conceals symptoms rather than curing fundamental faults as, "Inventing rubber gloves as a cure for leaky fountain pens. The truly green way to minimise pollution is to burn less fuel."
Catalytic converters do not filter impurities from car exhausts. They change the nature of the gases by chemical reaction as they pass through a honeycomb coated with the precious platinum and rhodium. This removes oxygen from the offensive oxides of nitrogen, and uses it to turn hydrogen and carbon into carbon dioxide and water. The water is fine, but too much carbon dioxide gives the world's plant life a lot of photo-synthesising to do.
The converters need to be hot to work properly, together with an engine running on a strictly chemically correct air/fuel mixture. Gas going through it must contain exactly the right proportions of oxygen molecules to burn all the hydrogen and carbon atoms.
If the mixture is rich in petrol the device will lack the necessary oxygen; if it is weak excess oxygen will remain bonded to the nitrogen as oxides of nitrogen.
Unfortunately the chemically correct mixture is not always what the engine works best on. For the highest power output it needs more fuel at full throttle, and for best economy it needs more air at part-throttle, so catalyst-equipped engines lose two ways - less power and heavier fuel consumption. They also demand expensive back-up systems to ensure they meet the regulations reliably for large mileages.
The motor industry's response has been to increase engine capacity to make up for power losses and ignore the fuel consumption penalty. Small economical engines of 1.0 litre and under have virtually disappeared. The British government's initiative to encourage small cars by imposing less stringent exhaust purity was overruled, with the result that more fuel will continue to be burned in larger engines producing more unwanted carbon dioxide.
The introduction of lead-free fuel was a necessary prerequisite for catalytic converters, whose action can be destroyed by a tankful of leaded. But removing the lead and fitting converters has done nothing to make the world less profligate with fuel. "The environmentalists had a fixation with them," remains the engineer's view. "They were encouraged by the rhodium and platinum mining lobby. Together they have delayed small efficient engines by ten years."