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Tesla gives Fiat a wake up call: ‘fake’ electric cars can still manipulate EU emissions standards

New CO2 regulations set to take effect in Europe have several loopholes in place that could derail the goal of reducing new car emissions by 37.5% in the region by 2030, according to a study published by advocacy group Transport & Environment. In a worst-case modeling scenario, gaming of the rules could also result in almost two million fewer zero or low emissions vehicles coming to market between 2025 and 2030, and of those in the market, half might be plug-in hybrids built for compliance, not innovation.

In order to propel the creation of a battery electric auto industry in the region, European Union members and parties participating in the discussions over the new CO2 regulations included incentives in the agreement that were tied to specific vehicle sales. Auto manufacturers with 15% of their sales coming from zero and low emission vehicles by 2025 and 35% from 2030 onwards will have their CO2 targets reduced by a maximum of 5%. This effectively means a company’s new fleet-wide CO2 output would only need to be reduced to 34.4% by 2030 instead of 37.5%, as calculated in the study.

Companies have further been allowed to pool their fleets together to help reach these goals, something which Tesla has recently taken advantage of by partnering with Fiat Chrysler. As a manufacturer of zero-emission vehicles, counting Tesla’s fleet with Fiat’s lowers the average per-vehicle CO2 output, thus lessening the burden for Fiat to meet the emissions standards while Tesla profits from the deal.

Chart visualizing the impact of ‘fake’ electric cars (compliance plug-in hybrids) enabled by loopholes in the coming EU CO2 regulations. An estimated 2 million electric vehicles will be lost by 2030; of all low emissions vehicles sold, half (11 million) will be compliance plug-in hybrids. | Credit: Transport & Environment

On its face, the 5% trade-off for lower emissions standards would be the entry of new, more innovative clean energy vehicles on the market; however, the inclusion of plug-in hybrids in that calculation could be problematic and used to game the system. In order to qualify as a low emissions vehicle, a hybrid car only needs to be under a threshold of 50 g/km CO2 output during testing which assumes full use of the vehicle’s battery. Because most of these plug-in hybrids have very low battery ranges, they’re often not used in practice in favor of the internal combustion engine, thus increasing their real-world CO2 output to around 120 g/km.

The technology behind plug-in hybrids is less innovative and therefore cheaper to produce, so the financial appeal of producing more of these types of vehicles over battery-only electric vehicles is high. The Transport & Environment study estimates that this effect will lead to about 2 million fewer all-electric cars being produced in favor of the cheaper, ‘fake’ electric compliance hybrids.

Other loopholes in the EU regulations also contribute to a reduction in CO2 outcomes. Fourteen countries where non-existent or nascent low emissions vehicle markets were identified will receive nearly double the emissions credit for eco-friendly cars sold to encourage development in the regions.

Chart displaying the estimated effect of allowing ‘fake’ electric cars (compliance plug-in hybrids) to receive partial (.7) emissions credits under coming EU CO2 regulations. | Credit: Transport & Environment
Chart displaying the estimated effect of allowing car makers to register low emissions vehicles in nascent markets for double credits under coming EU CO2 regulations and then quickly resell to larger markets. | Credit: Transport & Environment

Simply, a large manufacturer could register thousands of vehicles in one of these markets, acquire double credit for each vehicle, and then quickly sell the vehicles in an established market where demand is higher. When sold, the cars would technically be “used” for record keeping purposes, but new to consumers and presented that way. This would circumvent the point of developing a low emissions market in those countries, further limiting the expansion of low emissions car availability.

The EU member states where double credits apply are Ireland, Greece, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus, and Malta.

The final (possible) loophole identified in the Transport & Environment study lies with the inclusion of Norway in the EU regional calculations. The country has not yet formally been included in the 2025/30 standards but is part of the 2020/1 standards currently in effect and will likely be included in the upcoming rules.

Norway is requiring 100% of its vehicles to have zero emissions by 2025, thus guaranteeing sales of those types of cars in a market where ICE vehicles are not competitive. Automakers could concentrate their sales in that region and make less effort to sell in the rest of Europe, all while still remaining compliant with the regulations. Reaching compliance in this manner is another way the intent of the coming CO2 reduction requirements can be manipulated.

Chart displaying the estimated effect of allowing low emissions vehicles sold in Norway to count towards EU emissions averages under coming EU CO2 regulations. | Credit: Transport & Environment

The authors of the Transport & Environment study have laid out their proposals to overcome these loopholes, but considering that they were included to win the support of the auto industry in the region, further changes to the regulations seem unlikely. Also, the study could be taking an overly pessimistic view of the possible outcomes the loopholes could lead to.

Consumer markets, even without significant CO2-related regulation, are already showing trends towards increasing low emission vehicle demands, especially for battery electric vehicles like those sold by Tesla. This “Tesla Effect” has been noted by the upper echelons of legacy auto and several have committed to billions in electric fleet investments. Porsche is unveiling its first production electric vehicle, the Taycan, this September and has plans to retire its diesel-powered lineup and embrace electrification. Ford has also recently committed to electrifying its F-series, most notably the classic F-150, as well as invest $11 billion dollars to produce 40 electrified vehicles by 2022.

Tesla gives Fiat a wake up call: ‘fake’ electric cars can still manipulate EU emissions standards
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