THE BLOG

VW Emissions Affair: UK Drivers are being left in the dark due to mixed messages from Ministers

21/10/2015 09:45 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 10:12 BST

The UK Government must come clean on what they knew and move quicker to end uncertainty for drivers.

Almost a month after Volkswagen's use of "defeat devices" to evade regulatory emissions limits in the USA became known, it is clear that the implications here in the UK, are just as serious.

Most immediately affected and facing awful uncertainty are the owners of 1.2 million Volkswagen diesel vehicles, after it emerged "defeat" software had also been installed in VW Group vehicles on this side of the Atlantic. It is not surprising that confidence in the automotive industry as a whole has been shaken by this, with industry bodies such as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders moving quickly to secure guarantees from other manufacturers that they have not been involved in anything similar.

The issue of cheat software has, however, brought to the public's attention, deeper issues about how far vehicle emissions tests reflect the reality of driving conditions on the road. In other words, are the emissions they record representative even when there is no cheating going on? Belatedly, we are finally waking up to the air quality crisis facing many of our towns and cities. We have pledged to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions by 55% by 2020 (compared to 2005), and 30% of nitrogen oxides emissions in this country are generated by motor traffic.

So it is not surprising that, in the UK Parliament, both the Transport and Environmental Audit Select Committees have launched inquiries into the implications of the VW affair. Meanwhile, as the RAC Foundation and others have warned, VW drivers themselves still do not know how the recall of their cars will work - especially in light of German regulators' decision to reject Volkswagen's voluntary recall scheme.

Where though, is the UK Government in all of this? Ministers should be insisting that VW owners get the information they deserve quickly, underpinned by a thorough investigation into what has happened. Labour has suggested establishing an independent inquiry, led by the Cabinet Office - but it can't end there. A survey from Which? last week, highlighted the demand from the public for greater clarity from Ministers on emissions testing and air quality more generally. Because the truth is the Government's response has been muddled at best.

Over the last few months the Government should have been doing a lot more to make sure that real life emissions tests are put in place as quickly as possible. Following last week's select committee hearings, the Government should move quickly to end damaging uncertainty over whether Volkswagen or taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the re-testing regime.

Warnings last October from the International Council on Clean Transportation that real-world diesel emissions were significantly higher than under laboratory conditions should have been a wake-up call. But instead Ministers were scrabbling around with botched reorganisations of the Vehicle Certification Agency in which confidence is essential if trust is to be restored.

Across the EU, 2017 is the target for a new emissions testing regime to be introduced to better reflect real life driving conditions. The UK should be in the forefront of making this happen.

Looking ahead, we need a far more coherent approach across Government about how to reduce harmful emissions - from motor vehicles and elsewhere - whilst simultaneously carrying though our commitments to cut CO2. Too often, policies by successive governments have either focused on tackling climate change or tackling harmful emissions. We need to do both.

However, just a couple of months before the VW emissions scandal broke, the Budget reduced incentives for motorists to switch to lower emission/lower carbon vehicles such as hybrids. True, incentives for pure electric vehicles remain in place, but the decision to hit hybrids looks like another example of siloed thinking by the present government.

A wealth of work has already taken place on the Automotive Council and elsewhere to devise a low carbon/low emission strategies. Provided Government stays on board with it, the New Advanced Propulsion Centre can deepen that work in ways that win the UK industrial advantage as well as environmental improvements. Meanwhile the Transport Catapult and a range of research institutes are already showing how innovation how in technologically connected towns and cities can enable people to make smarter choices about how they get about - by car , bus, train, bike or on foot. Government can do more to make them happen in reality.