We’ve got used to reading about far-fetched fuel economy figures every time a new car is launched, with some promising to be able to travel as far as 280 miles or more on a single gallon of fuel, but few drivers have ever managed to get close to the claims made.
That’s because the regulations covering fuel economy were introduced in 1970, and were last updated 20 years ago. Cars were lighter and less powerful, but even then testing barely replicated real-world driving styles. The laboratory tests have stuck around since, while the motor industry moved forward with technologies such as hybrids and even hydrogen powered cars, as well as ever more powerful models.
That has enabled car makers across the board to beat the system, as the test is easy to reproduce and easy to manipulate. Even without defeating the test and remaining entirely within the rules, official fuel economy figures continue to rise sharply, with manufacturers profiting from sales based on customers misled by out of date rules.
The EU, which mandated the rules, has arguably sat back for too long, but are now introducing one of the toughest testing regimes in the world.
Changes to the system are rolling out over the next 12 months, with every new model introduced having to go through a revised test that will better simulate real-world driving, and measure everything from fuel consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2), to nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulates and carbon monoxide (CO).
Speeds will rise to more than 80mph, with harsher acceleration, a longer distance to cover and a wider area of simulated roads, all to better recreate modern driving conditions.
The laboratory tests will also be backed up by on-road testing to ensure there’s nowhere for manufacturers to hide.
The likely result is that official economy figures will fall, and fall significantly. However, they should be closer to the economy returns that drivers actually get in real conditions.
It will also be harder to manipulate the test in order to reduce NOx or particulate emissions. Serious health problems are caused by NOx, as well as damage to the environment, while particulate matter is linked to health and respiratory problems.
Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that diesel vehicles emit close to 40% of London’s emissions of both NOx and particulate matter. Modelling provided by King’s College London showed that only a reduction in diesel vehicles of 95% in inner London would bring the capital into compliance with legal emissions limits.
However, while we all want greener, cleaner cars, the fact remains that buyers generally look at performance, style and cost ahead of environmental concerns, which is why hybrid and electric vehicle sales remain so low.
An expected lowering of the CO2 targets from the EU in the next year, with a lead time for car companies of ten years, will mean electrification becomes a bigger deal, but consumers are unlikely to be prepared to pay for it. It leaves the manufacturer's in a tricky position, faced with investing massively in new technology that they will be unable to charge a premium for at a time when new car sales are slumping.
It still doesn’t address the problem of pre-Euro 6 diesel engines remaining on the road, either. While the latests engines are surprisingly clean, the level of pollutants rises dramatically as the engine regulations get older, with models from the beginning of the millennium pumping out ten times the harmful emissions than the latest models.
And, while the scrappage schemes that are being announced by every manufacturer might look like a good way of getting older cars off the road, there’s no doubt that they’re using the current bad press the previous generations cars are getting to push sales of new cars, and recover some of the lost sales they’re facing as the global economy stutters.
For now, nothing much is changing, but the new tests mean buyers will be better informed as new models make their way to market, leaving Diesel's days numbered. Looking ahead, it seems that petrol may not be far behind.