The results have prompted the AAA to boldly question the relevance of globally-utilised lab testing as a methodology, plus the government emissions reduction regulations based upon these results, and by extension the honesty of car-maker claims in these areas.
Meanwhile, the peak body for Australia’s 60-plus car brands, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI), has welcomed the study for its potential to broaden the discussion around regulations, but has warned that it could also confuse customers by cluttering the market.
The AAA (which is the peak body for groups such as the NRMA and RACV) tests were launched in the wake of the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal, much to the bemusement of the German brand’s Australian distributor.
It commissioned the study of 30 vehicles to clarify how real-world emissions differ from those observed in the laboratory setting. These cars cover various brands, fuel types and segments, and are mostly higher-volume.
Engineering firm ABMARC is using portable, laboratory-standard equipment to analyse emissions on these cars around Melbourne. All test vehicles were made in 2014 or later, and each has traveled between 2000km and 50,000km, a notable point of difference to lab tests.
According to the AAA, full results are due by mid-2017, but it is releasing 10 vehicle data sets early to add its two cents to a pair of government reviews: the work of the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) market study into new car retailing.
The Australian government will have to eventually adopt Euro 6 emissions standards, moving beyond our current lagging Euro 5 requirements.
The headline results from these early tests are claimed to show that emissions of noxious gasses are up to four-times the regulatory limits, while greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption were up to 35 per cent higher than figures shown on the relevant government-mandated labels, and 20 per cent higher on average.
So what was the AAA’s procedure? The test route is based on the current draft Real Driving Emissions test procedure developed by the JRC (European Joint Research Centre) modified to Australian roads and conditions.
The urban segment was completed in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs, with the rural and freeway driving segments being completed on the Monash freeway between Melbourne and Dandenong.
In line with the European RDE procedure, the drive route consists of approximately one third urban, one third rural and one third freeway, with no less than 16km distance travelled in each of the three segments, lasting between 90 and 120 minutes in duration. The actual trip distance was 83km, with a duration of approximately 105 minutes.
The test is conducted twice (hot and cold starts), bringing total measurement time to approximately 210 minutes, which is claimed as the equivalent of more than 10 laboratory tests using the New European Drive Cycle.
The full results will be revealed in the middle of 2017.
Speaking in response to the results, the peak body for the Australia’s new vehicle importers and car makers, the FCAI, welcomed the information, but expressed concerns.
FCAI chief executive Tony Weber said car companies are required to conform to an emissions certification standard under a mandated test procedure, ADR 79/04. This test establishes “a like-for-like comparison by using standardised laboratory conditions which are recognised the world over”.
He said that while the trial of a new on-roads emissions standard in an uncontrolled environment and using parameters which were based on a European standard helped raise awareness of the broader emissions discussion, he expressed concern that it may also serve to confuse consumers.
“Our biggest concern is that the consumer may be confused about which emissions standard to believe: the non-mandated one which cannot be reliably repeated, or the one which is government mandated, conducted in controlled conditions, under very strict protocols, and is replicable time and again across different brands and models,” he said.
“The government’s mandated emission rating which appears on the windscreen of every new car sold in Australia is reasonably well understood. But it can only serve as a guide to consumers because of the huge number of variables which exist out on the public road.”
Weber said that one of the vital elements in the broader emissions discussion was the need for higher quality standards in the base-grade transport fuel, including a minimum 95 RON octane level and 10 parts per million sulphur in petrol.
“The industry supports harmonisation with international standards wherever possible and we are currently in discussions with the Government over a reasonable and measured timeframe for the introduction of a CO2 standard and a transition to the Euro 6 emissions standard,” he said.
We called Volkswagen Australia for its input. You may remember that the company came out swinging at the AAA in August, with its CEO Michael Bartsch labelling it as “grandstanding” and “coming to the table when the coffee is cold”.
This is despite Volkswagen’s global head, Matthias Muller, recently advocating the idea that emissions tests “as a general principle” would be externally evaluated by third parties in the future, to stop dieselgate MkII happening.
This week, the German brand’s local arm was more cautious, stating that is couldn’t comment too much considering the full results are not yet in the public domain.
“We look forward to seeing these results released,” said its communications chief Paul Pottinger. "It's a pity no real detail has been provided."
We would mention that, in our experience, ADR fuel economy figures are often hard to match in the real world — though it is possible to do so with cautious driving. We also consider a standardised control test such as this to be a valuable way to compare class rivals.
Read the full AAA report here for more detailed information, if you're interested.