Ger­many re­jects tough diesel rules

Of­fi­cials, car­mak­ers agree to less ex­pen­sive soft­ware up­dates to com­bat pol­lu­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Erik Kirschbaum Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

BER­LIN — Ger­man gov­ern­ment lead­ers and the coun­try’s pow­er­ful car in­dus­try agreed Wed­nes­day to a plan to in­stall rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive soft­ware up­dates on 5 mil­lion of the coun­try’s most heav­ily pol­lut­ing diesel cars.

The up­dates are ex­pected to cost Ger­man car­mak­ers $600 mil­lion — far less than the es­ti­mated $4.7 bil­lion it would have cost had the gov­ern­ment re­quired far more ef­fec­tive me­chan­i­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tions that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists wanted.

The move comes as Volk­swa­gen is strug­gling to re­cover from a mas­sive emis­sions scan­dal in the United States and all au­tomak­ers are fac­ing in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion from hy­brid and elec­tric ve­hi­cles and pres­sure from other Euro­pean coun­tries to lower emis­sions.

Bri­tain and France also re­cently an­nounced they want to ban the sale of new diesel and gaso­line-pow­ered ve­hi­cles by 2040, and ma­jor Euro­pean cap­i­tals such as Athens and Madrid plan to ban all diesel ve­hi­cles within the next eight years.

Ger­many had con­sid­ered ban­ning diesels in heav­ily pol­luted cities. But a third of the coun­try’s 45 mil­lion cars are diesels, and the au­tomak­ers have enor­mous po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic power, em­ploy­ing more that 800,000 work­ers.

With elec­tions sched­uled for next month, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, her con­ser­va­tive party and its grand coali­tion part­ner, the cen­ter-left So­cial Demo­cratic Party, were re­luc­tant to at­tack the sta­tus quo.

Diesel cars, us­ing an en­gine in­vented in the 19th cen­tury by Ger­many’s very own Ru­dolf Diesel, are pop­u­lar in Ger­many and in many Euro­pean coun­tries be­cause of state sub­si­dies that make the prices of diesel fuel of­ten sub­stan­tially cheaper than gas.

Newer diesel cars will not have to un­dergo the soft­ware up­date.

The agree­ment emerged Wed­nes­day from an “emer­gency diesel sum­mit” in Ber­lin that in­cluded car in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives, union lead­ers and gover­nors from states with car fac­to­ries.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups vowed to press on with court chal­lenges across the coun­try that could still force some towns and cities to ban older, more heav­ily pol­lut­ing diesel cars de­spite the soft­ware up­date.

Green­peace demon­stra­tors un­furled a gi­ant ban­ner on the Trans­port Min­istry that read, “Wel­come to Fort NOx,” a ref­er­ence to the toxic ni­tro­gen ox­ides from diesel fumes.

But par­tic­i­pants at the Ber­lin meet­ing praised the agree­ment as an anti-pol­lu­tion mea­sure that would not hurt the econ­omy.

“What is at stake here is se­cur­ing jobs in the car in­dus­try — and clean air in our cities,” said Horst See­hofer, the gov­er­nor of Bavaria, a state that is home to BMW and Audi as well scores of car parts sup­pli­ers.

The agree­ment also made po­lit­i­cal sense for both ma­jor par­ties.

“No one in the Ger­man gov­ern­ment has any in­ter­est or need for any kind of a car in­dus­try scan­dal right now or stir­ring up any prob­lems for them or their sup­pli­ers,” said Thomas Jaeger, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Cologne Univer­sity.

“They’re all happy to get it out of the way as quickly and pain­lessly as pos­si­ble and the car­mak­ers are happy that there won’t be any se­ri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions.”

Fer­di­nand Du­den­ho­ef­fer, a car in­dus­try an­a­lyst at the Univer­sity of Duis­burgEssen Cen­ter for Au­to­mo­tive Re­search, called the agree­ment a farce and said po­lit­i­cal lead­ers had squan­dered the op­por­tu­nity to force a more mean­ing­ful change on the car­mak­ers. “The big­gest losers are the politi­cians and their cred­i­bil­ity,” he said.

The only crit­i­cism from in­side the meet­ing came from En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Bar­bara Hen­dricks of the So­cial Democrats. “This agree­ment doesn’t go far enough yet,” she said. “Soft­ware up­dates won’t com­pletely solve the NOx prob­lem from diesels.”

Once her­alded around the world as paragon of high qual­ity and ef­fi­ciency, with the ca­pa­bil­ity to race at speeds well over 100 mph, Ger­man cars have seen their im­age take a bat­ter­ing in re­cent years af­ter rev­e­la­tions in 2015 that Volk­swa­gen cheated on diesel emis­sions tests in­volv­ing nearly 600,000 cars in the U.S.

“The car in­dus­try knows that we’ve lost a lot of the trust that we had,” said Matthias Wiss­mann, pres­i­dent of the VDA car in­dus­try lobby and a for­mer trans­port min­is­ter. “We have to work hard at win­ning back that trust.”

The Ger­man car­mak­ers, which long re­sisted elec­tric ve­hi­cles while cling­ing to the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine, have also been caught flat­footed by changes in the global car mar­ket, such as the launch of Tesla’s first mass-mar­ket elec­tric car and Volvo’s an­nounce­ment last month that all its new cars from 2019 will be partly or com­pletely elec­tric-pow­ered.

The VDA said the new en­gine man­age­ment soft­ware would im­prove emis­sions fil­ter­ing sys­tems and re­duce the ni­tro­gen ox­ide lev­els by between 25% and 30%.

But Juer­gen Resch, head of the DUH en­vi­ron­men­tal group, crit­i­cized the agree­ment and said it would re­duce emis­sions of ni­tro­gen ox­ide by only 2% to 3%.

“This is bad news for hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who will get sick and 10,600 peo­ple who will die pre­ma­turely due to NOx each year,” Resch said.

St­effi Loos Getty Im­ages

DAIM­LER’S Di­eter Zetsche, left, Volk­swa­gen’s Matthias Mueller and auto lob­by­ist Matthias Wiss­mann.

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