Software update is more convincing and more effective in the short term than retrofitting hardware – politicians and industry share a common goal
The discussions at the “National Diesel Forum” and its results show that the German automotive industry is aware of its responsibility and is making a major contribution to reaching a solution.
For example, the German manufacturers are offering a wide-ranging package of measures. In addition to the software updates for Euro 5 diesel cars and some Euro 6 diesels as well, the auto makers have announced their own bonuses for switching from an older diesel vehicle, so the fleet can be replaced much faster. Both the upgrades and the purchasing incentives will be financed solely by the manufacturers. Furthermore, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen will participate in the “sustainable mobility for the city” fund planned by the German Government. These three measures will require the carmakers to invest billions, especially given the fact that some activities will extend beyond Germany.
The top-level meeting on diesels produced a broad consensus on continuing to improve urban air quality and avoiding bans on certain vehicles. This common goal was made equally clear by representatives of the industry and by political players from the German Government, the federal states and the municipalities, right across the political spectrum. The summit has therefore indicated the direction for new developments. That is a step forward, and should be recognized as such.
At the same time, this kind of meeting obviously cannot eliminate all the uncertainties immediately. The industry is aware that it has lost some trust among its customers and is working on regaining that lost trust. The auto makers made this very clear in the discussions with top-level politicians. Moreover, it is not possible to resolve overnight the uncertainty among motorists, resulting from a partly over-generalized public debate, complex legal procedures and the announcement of driving bans. Here the measures agreed have to be implemented in air pollution control plans and in some regions they may have to be supplemented. The German Government’s planned working parties will have to work on elaborating that. The effects of the packages of measures will make the air quality control plans tangibly more effective, and that will reduce the risk of driving bans.
All those involved take the tasks ahead of us very seriously. Yet, overall, in the past the air in towns and cities has become ever cleaner. According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), nitrogen oxide emissions from road traffic in Germany fell by around 70 percent in the period from 1990 to 2015 – despite the increasing volume of traffic.
The situation varies a great deal from one air-quality measuring point to another. At two thirds of measuring stations where the limit value is exceeded, the annual average exceedances come to 49 micrograms of NO2 per m3 of air – or less – which is very small. With the measures now agreed, there is a good chance that the limit value of 40 micrograms of NO2 per m3 can be reached at these measuring stations in the foreseeable future. Only 14 measuring stations on busy roads still have values of 60 micrograms or more of NO2 per m3. They will require special attention in the future.
The task is to swiftly bring down urban NOx emissions. The software update is the right way to achieve this. It takes effect relatively quickly and acts in millions of passenger cars on the roads. Every hardware retrofit would – quite apart from the elaborate model-specific development – need to be tested for summer and winter, and safety aspects would have to be considered. Implementation would take a long time. Appropriate, specific measures by the companies for replacing the fleet are therefore better than backward-looking hardware instruments.