German Diesel summit: 5 million vehicles will receive software updates

02 August 2017

German Diesel summit: 5 million vehicles will receive software updates

2 August 2017

As discussed on Monday, representatives of Germany’s Government, federal states and car industry have gathered at the National Diesel Forum in Berlin today (2 August) to discuss measures to reduce air pollution from traffic. 

The German Transport Ministry and carmakers are keen to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by retrofitting older diesels with updated engine management software but the administrative court ruled in Stuttgart on Friday that this alone would be insufficient. As the German Environment Ministry has already rejected proposals for tax incentives to promote the sale of low-emission diesel and electric cars, Germany is still looking for alternative solutions to avert proposed diesel driving bans in cities such as Stuttgart and Munich in order to meet European emissions standards. 

The summit meeting was disrupted before it even began, with magazine Der Spiegel reporting on Greenpeace activists protesting about air pollution from the roof of the Transport Ministry. They unfurled a sizeable banner with the sloganWillkommen in Fort NOx’ (‘Welcome to Fort NOx) in reference to the excessive levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emitted by older diesel engines. Consequently, the summit has had to be moved from the Transport Ministry to rooms in the Federal Ministry of the Interior – officially ‘for technical reasons.’ Greenpeace has also tweeted that the ‘Diesel summit defends "finished" Diesel technology as if it was the gold in Fort Knox. Enough already!’ 

Given the disruption, it was unclear whether there would be any announcement today but Automobilwoche has run a live news update during the day. The biggest news, announced at 1500 CET, is that the German automotive industry association VDA reports that more than five million diesel vehicles will be retrofitted with a software update. This includes the 2.5 million VW Group cars which are already being upgraded due to the emissions scandal.’ The cars affected are predominantly those that meet the Euro 5 emissions standard but also some that comply with Euro 6. The target is an average reduction of the NOx emissions of the retrofitted vehicles by 25-30%, with the VDA commenting that ‘studies have shown that the pollutant load can be reduced at least as much as with driving bans.’  

Retrofitting of BMW, Daimler, Opel and Volkswagen vehicles will be offered, which should come at no cost to owners and should also not affect the power, fuel consumption or durability of the vehicles. VDA President Matthias Wissmann estimates that the software-Updates will cost the car industry about €500 million. 

In a subsequent update, at 1645 CET, Automobilwoche reported that The VW Group wants to recall around four million diesel vehicles.  This includes, however, the 2.5 million with manipulated motors, which are recalled anyway. This includes approximately 850,000 cars from Audi as well as models of the VW commercial vehicles, Seat and Skoda brands. The improvements are free for the customers, said a spokesman.’  

It is not clear, however, whether all four million VW Group vehicles are already included in the VDA’s five million figure and so whether another one million or two and a half million vehicles from other OEMs make up the difference. 

Earlier in the day, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia's Prime Minister, Armin Laschet, told German TV station ZDF that ‘We want to save diesel’ as it is ‘the most CO2-friendly vehicle among combustion engine cars’ although he does want the car industry to cover the costs of retrofitting diesel vehicles with updates. Also speaking to ZDF, Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Stephan Weil warned against high expectations from the summit meeting, saying that:we will not be able to clear aside undesirable developments that have arisen over so many years within months, let alone a few days.’ He added that ‘the auto industry has made serious mistakes, massive mistakes over many, many years’ and sees the German automobile industry on the cusp of going through a big change. 

The SPD Party’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks has defended the emerging compromise with software updates instead of more expensive retrofitting of hardware, telling radio station Südwestrundfunk (SWR2) that this is no placidness.’ She commented that there are still technical questions about retrofitting hardware but that the manufacturers obligation to update the engine software is considered safe. However, she did emphasise that the software update is a first step, which would have to be followed by others. It has also been agreed that emissions controls are improved and that even the emissions of registered vehicles need to be examined with probes but the Environment and Transport Ministries want to do everything to avoid driving bans according to Hendricks. 

ADAC, the German motoring organisation, has called the results the ‘first step in the right direction’ but still sees room for improvement. It claims that with hardware updates, NOx emissions would not be reduced by only 25% but by up to 90%. The ADAC sees plans for the promotion of electric propulsion for buses and taxis and the expansion of the charging infrastructure as positive but ‘a clear timetable is missing.’ The ADAC added that intelligent traffic control could also significantly reduce NOx emissions, with Vice President Ulrich Klaus Becker commenting that ‘the potential offered by fluid transport is still being ignored.’ 

The debate will undoubtedly continue and more measures will invariably follow but the German market is also going through its own correction as the diesel share of newly registered cars in Germany continues to decline significantly. The latest data from the KBA motor vehicle authority reveal that, in July, the diesel market share fell to 40.5%, with registrations of new diesel cars falling by 12.7%.