The European Union Roadworthiness Directive came into force on 20 May 2018 and will play a role in enforcing type approval emissions limits, subtly but powerfully changing its role and previous focus on safety, to the benefit of air quality.
In the new inspection and maintenance test, known for example as the MOT test in the UK, a ‘major’ defect and automatic fail arises from any visible smoke being emitted by any car equipped with a diesel particulate filter (DPF), meaning in practice the majority of vehicles since late 2009 (Euro 5 onwards).
The definition of ‘visible smoke’ has only tightened up for vehicles registered after 1 January 2014, meaning late Euro 5 and all Euro 6. Permitted smoke for these cars has more than halved from 1.5m-1 to 0.7m-1. This measurement is familiar to any MOT tester and denotes opacity, where 0.0 m-1 is totally clear and 10.00 m-1 is totally black. In practice, less than 0.7m-1 is judged to be invisible and more than 0.7m-1 will be visible.
For vehicles from 1 July 2008 to 31 December 2013, the standard is 1.5m-1, while the smoke standard for older cars remains unchanged, at 2.5m-1 (non-turbo) 3.0m-1 (turbo).
Air quality campaigners have been quick to note the perversity of a tougher test that only applies to newer cars. However, it has long been politically unfeasible to apply new standards to old cars, which would see the wholesale removal of vehicles that met their type approval at the time of their manufacture.
The revised smoke test for vehicles since 2014 is likely to catch out cars where the DPF is absent or defective. Particulate emissions rise by orders of magnitude when the DPF is missing or blocked. In the UK, 1800 cars have been caught without a DPF since 2014, but the true figure is believed to be much higher because it is notoriously difficult for testers to identify DPF removal in the small amount of time taken to perform the MOT.
In an exercise Emissions Analytics conducted in 2017 with BBC 5 live Investigates, a car with its DPF removed still passed its MOT at three (out of three) different garages. Mechanics failed to spot the filter had been taken out on each occasion, and the car was not failed for opacity.
To quantify the difference between having a DPF and not having a DPF, Emissions Analytics technicians tested a 9.0 litre commercial diesel engine before and after the installation of a DPF retrofit. The particle number (PN) and particle mass (PM) afterwards were close to zero, so the reduction was over 99%. Therefore, tampering would increase the emissions by orders of magnitude.
As this problem of DPF removal detection has not been eliminated, it is believed that the tougher smoke test will most likely identify missing filters, although we think a greater degree of tester training and adherence to test processes is also required.
A weakness of the new test is that is does virtually nothing to enforce emissions limits for nitrogen dioxide (NOx). Emissions control equipment is only subject to a visual check for its presence, including the oxygen sensor, NOx sensor and exhaust gas recirculation valve.
Should any of these items be ‘missing, obviously modified or obviously defective’, the car fails the test. However, the new (UK) MOT Manual skimps over this area by suggesting in section 188.8.131.52 (Exhaust emission control equipment for diesel engines), telling testers, “You only need to check components that are visible and identifiable, such as diesel oxidation catalysts, diesel particulate filters, exhaust gas recirculation valves and selective catalytic reduction valves.” We suspect that in numerous cases this requirement will be neglected owing to the continued difficulty of determining the presence of some of these items, or because of commercial pressures to complete tests quickly.
Almost all Euro 5 diesel cars had no NOx after-treatment, just exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), while their Euro 6 successors typically received the addition of either a Lean NOx Trap (LNT) or a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system. Therefore, as a rough equivalence, a Euro 6 car with failed after-treatment may emit at a level more akin to an equivalent Euro 5 vehicle.
Emissions Analytics has tested numerous Euro 5 and 6 cars on its on-road EQUA Index (www.equaindex.com) route. For example, a Euro 5 VW Golf 1.6 litre diesel emitted 0.557 g/km of NOx, while its LNT-equipped Euro 6 successor emitted 0.161 g/km, a reduction of 71%.
Then take the larger Mercedes C-Class 2.1 litre diesel. In Euro 5 guise it emitted 1.226 g/km of NOx; and with SCR fitted to the Euro 6 version the same engine emitted 0.396 g/km, a reduction of 68%.
From these results it is clear that to disable these treatments (with an “emulator” or similar) or where they have malfunctioned, NOx could increase by a factor of over 3.
However, the dilemma in setting an in-service NOx standard is that the performance of vehicles when brand new varies from around 20 mg/km to over 1500 mg/km – the issue uncovered as a result of the dieselgate scandal. A vehicle normally producing 20 mg/km that is malfunctioning might produce 800 mg/km, whereas a different model may produce 800 mg/km when in a fully functioning condition. Therefore, a real-world reference number is required to judge the in-service performance. The EQUA Index rating, which is a standardised test on the vehicle when new, could act as this reference value to increase the accuracy of identifying malfunctioning vehicles.
One unmistakable outcome is that what was once mainly a test for roadworthiness has now become a more complex enforcement of type approval emissions, at the very moment when those limits are tightening up within WLTP/RDE.
The inspection and maintenance system has in this sense risen in importance as a tool for policing emissions, because non-compliant vehicles will display vastly increased emissions, by orders of magnitude. However, the failure to test properly for NOx misses one of the major problems that Europe faces, in the wake of its dieselisation, while the ultrafine particles produced by downsized, direct injection petrol engines are also missed. It feels as though the new test is distinctly lacking in these crucial areas, leaving much more work to be done.