According to a recent study, 90% of new diesel vehicles exceed pollution limits when tested on typical roads in comparison to test track settings. The study was conducted by Transport and Environment (T and E), a group based in Belgium which represents environmental groups and campaigners working for sustainable transport, and included vehicles from manufacturers including Audi, BMW, Citroen, Opel, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz.

T and E’s study showed that on average, the new diesel vehicles tested emitted seven times the permitted limit of Nitrogen Oxide gases (these are typically emitted from vehicle exhaust systems). The worst performing diesel vehicle emitted 22 times the limit. From 1 September 2015, all new diesel vehicles in the European Union (EU) must comply with “Euro 6” emission limits-limits for typical vehicle exhaust emissions that become more stringent as technology improves and are introduced as part of efforts to improve air quality in city and urban areas. Euro 6-the latest in the series of emission standards-focuses on lowering particulate emissions from vehicle exhaust systems.

The study found that manufacturers used a range of techniques to ensure better performance under test conditions when compared to when the vehicle is driven by typical consumers. Stripping components to reduce the weight of the vehicle, using special lubricants, over inflating tyres and using extremely smooth test tracks are some of the methods used, according to the study. These techniques were also used to increase fuel efficiency.

In discussing the study results, T and E Clean Vehicles Manager Greg Archer remarked that only one out of every ten new diesel vehicles could be considered “clean”, when in reality every diesel vehicle was considered “clean”. He followed up by linking vehicle emissions to the ongoing air pollution crisis affecting cities, and noted that manufacturers sell the lower polluting versions of the vehicles they sell across the EU into the US where emission limits are more stringent.

In April this year, the UK Supreme Court ordered the Government to tackle air pollution. In response, Ministers recently released a range of proposals including improving public transport and creating low emission zones in many cities. In central London, drivers will have to pay a £12.50 (currently AUD$27) pollution charge from 2020.

Plans are currently underway to introduce a new on-road test to measure the real world emissions of diesel vehicles, however it won’t apply to new vehicles in the EU until 2018 at the earliest. Some manufacturers are arguing that on-road testing should be delayed until 2020.

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As a scientist with a background in air pollution monitoring, management and emissions reduction, I know that vehicle emissions play an important role in urban air quality, and that Governments around the world continue to grapple emissions from a range of sources. Maybe it is the scientist in me that says consumers need to make the link between vehicle (and other source) emissions, air quality and health in order to question and ultimately modify their behaviours for the good of their health and productivity as well as the environment.

I acknowledge the part played by the virtually constant news cycle and social media in providing large volumes of information which can assist consumers in making that link. I am also fully aware that consumers may feel bombarded with a lot of information during the sales journey and even if their purchase decision is made on the basis of vehicle emissions, questioning the conditions under which the emissions were measured isn’t very likely to be high on their list of questions (if it is on the list at all).

In order to truly compare “apples with apples”, they should have some confidence that the information they are given by the manufacturers of those respective vehicles was obtained on the same basis. Therefore, I believe it is incumbent upon Governments that publish Green Vehicle Guides (or incentivise “green vehicles”) to introduce on-road emissions testing and for consumers to maintain pressure on Governments to do so.

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