The end of the road for dirty diesels?

We have been listening to the proposals to discourage ‘dirty diesels’ by cities across Europe, and read with interest the statement from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), speaking up in favour of the diesel car. In our opinion, the evidence from real-on-road tests speaks for itself.

Our research shows Euro 5 standard diesels and earlier are indeed ‘dirty’. They produce high levels of NOx which is harmful to human health. Emissions are particularly bad in urban environments because NOx emissions correlate more closely with incidences of acceleration than speed, thus the stop-start nature of city driving exacerbates air pollution. And, it is made worse by the high number of older diesel buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in the urban environment.

To help combat this problem, the legal limit for NOx emissions was reduced to 0.08g/km with the introduction of the Euro 6 standard for passenger cars, effective from September 2014. We tested a number of the earliest Euro 6 diesels on the market and found that they produced levels of NOx which were seven times above the legislated limits. You can read more about it in the ICCT’s 2014 report, to which EA contributed data.

However, our latest tests show that many newer Euro 6 diesels are showing marked improvements, with NOx levels averaging 2.5 times above the legislated limit. In addition, great strides have been made to clean up new buses and the NOx emissions are now very low from many of these vehicles. Another concern with diesels is the emissions of particulates which are linked to heart and lung disease.  However, this issue was addressed with the Euro 5 standard which saw the addition of diesel particulate filters to the exhaust system, which has significantly reduced this problem.

Automotive manufacturers have been investing in NOx abatement technologies and strategies in anticipation of the forth-coming legislative changes which will require an element of real on-road testing, known as Real Driving Emissions. In future it will no longer be sufficient to simply pass the test, manufacturers will also have to demonstrate that their vehicles also comply when driven in the real world.

This can only be to the benefit of urban air quality and thus we agree with the SMMT in that a simplistic ‘demonisation’ of new diesels is not correct. In fact, careful attention needs to be paid to other technologies creating emissions increases, such as direct injection gasoline engines.  Nevertheless, there are issues with diesels that are not captured by the regulations, for example the proportion of NOx that is emitted as NO2, the more harmful component.  Our research shows that this proportion can be as high as 90% in urban driving, much higher than generally acknowledged.

Emissions Analytics has been leading research in these areas, for example with Imperial College London through the Air Pollution Research in London group, to ensure that the clean-up of diesel engines continues to translate into reality.