Engines and liars

How can we interpret the “dieselgate” scandal beyond the greed of manufacturers? Samuel Klebaner departs from normative condemnations to carry out a complex analysis of the interactions between regulatory developments and the behavior of automobile manufacturers.

The issue of regulatory capture touches the heart of the democratic functioning of our contemporary societies and therefore occupies a central place among public concerns. The recent calls for mobilization against political inaction on environmental matters, or the recurring attacks addressed to a European technocracy which is allegedly corrupted by the lobbies of large firms, are illustrative examples.

Cheating and the automobile lobby

In recent years, the automotive sector has been strongly affected by these controversies. Driven by the feeling of part of the French working classes of paying the price for a biased regulatory game, the mobilization of the yellow vests against the increase in fuel taxes is emblematic of this. Likewise, dieselgate which broke out in September 2015, following revelations from the American Environmental Protection Agency, undermined public confidence in the ability of regulators to enforce the standards they set. Indeed, this scandal began with the Volkswagen affair, in which the manufacturer was singled out for having used different techniques to reduce pollutant emissions during tests. However, it quickly becomes apparent that these technical tricks are not the prerogative of the German firm, but rather are part of a generalized practice in order to approve certain vehicles that are actually non-compliant in real conditions. Trials and investigations in different countries then follow one another, offering a bleak portrait of manufacturers, but also questioning the seriousness of testing procedures as well as the real ambition of regulators to face environmental challenges in the automobile sector.

This scandal surrounding diesel engines, as well as contemporary criticism of political inertia in environmental matters, benefits from being analyzed from a historical perspective. To do this, Samuel Klebaner’s work, from his doctoral thesis, traces the process of developing European emissions standards which arise from complex interactions between regulators and manufacturers over several decades. Its approach makes it possible in particular to highlight the existence of multiple injunctions — reduction of pollution and emissions of CO2preservation of health, employment and market shares – the taking into account of which by the various stakeholders in the regulatory game sometimes leads to ambiguous or sub-optimal results.

Towards a common market in the automobile industry

Regulatory efforts began in the 1970s, when the European Commission wanted to stimulate the harmonization of the Common Automotive Market through common standards and approval procedures, including anti-pollution standards. Due to the provisions of the Treaty of Rome, which imply that decisions must be taken unanimously by member states, emissions limits are only gradually tightened, as each government tends to defend its national manufacturers (p. 21) . In addition, the European automotive industry is also calling for regulatory restraint and trying to coordinate its interests within the “European Manufacturers’ Club”. Finally, under pressure from Germany which wanted to introduce tax incentives in favor of “clean” vehicles, the harmonization process accelerated at the end of the 1980s and led to the widespread distribution of the catalytic converter, making it possible to transform certain toxic elements of exhaust gases into less polluting components.

The creation of the Single Market in 1992 subsequently gave an important role to the European Commission, which wishes to stimulate technological innovation by imposing environmental standards and thus strengthen the competitiveness of European firms. Community policy is then carried out in consultation with all stakeholders – Commission, Member States, manufacturers, suppliers, users, environmentalists, experts -, notably gathered within the working group Motor Vehicle Emissions Group (p. 40). This consultation provides useful technical knowledge to the Commission, while strengthening its credibility and legitimacy, allowing ultimately to achieve a sustained reduction in polluting emission limits between 1987 and 2008 (p. 37).

Technical challenges and suboptimal results

From 2009, the machine stalled. European regulations focus on reducing carbon emissions. CO2 and provides for sanctions in the event of non-compliance with standards (p. 51). Manufacturers are then subject to a double regulatory constraint, namely complying with ever more restrictive anti-pollution standards so that their vehicles can be approved while reducing emissions. CO2 in order to avoid heavy economic sanctions. However, this double injunction proves difficult to satisfy, because there is a technical arbitration between pollutant emissions and emissions of CO2. Indeed, the higher the proportion of air, as in diesel engines, the more pollutants are emitted, while the higher the proportion of fuel, as in gasoline engines, the higher the emissions. CO2 are increasing (p. 18). As a result, technical solutions to meet environmental and public health objectives diverge from those to combat climate change. Diesel vehicles then facilitate compliance with standards CO2 decreed by the European Union, but struggle to meet anti-pollution limits. In addition, the relevance of the regulations is contested due to significant differences observed between test measurements and emissions measurements carried out in real conditions (p. 81). These controversies over diesel engines are reinforced by the outbreak of the Volkswagen affair and the dieselgate then precipitates the decline in the marketing of vehicles equipped with this technology.

To explain this chronology of events, Samuel Klebaner highlights the difficulties in coordinating regulatory times with industry times. The complex interweaving of different individual actions, both on the regulatory and production side, leads to an unsatisfactory situation for the various parties involved. The premature abandonment of diesel due to the crisis of confidence contributes to an increase in emissions CO2 new car registrations in the medium term, since electric cars do not replace them in a sufficient proportion. In addition, the emission limits of CO2, which are weighted by regulators according to the weight of vehicles, encourage manufacturers to favor the production of heavier cars, even though this logic contravenes the environmental and climate goals initially set. Finally, the author proposes ways out of the impasse in which the automobile industry finds itself, in particular through the electrification of the automobile fleet, the reduction of vehicle weight and above all the development of a transport regulatory policy. global and coherent at European level.

Regulators versus regulated

By emphasizing the dynamics of the construction of community regulations and their effects on economic strategies, Samuel Klebaner places two types of actors at the center of the story: regulators and the automobile industry. However, beneath these all-encompassing and generic terms lies a multitude of realities. At the political entity level, the narrative mainly focuses on the European Commission and the Member States. However, to understand certain political orientations in terms of environmental regulation, in particular that pursued by Germany which supports restrictive anti-pollution standards despite its large automobile industry, it would have been useful to have additional insight into the national political struggles which explain this positioning. Likewise, specialists in European politics from the 1970s have noted the existence of very divergent sensitivities within the European Commission in matters of economic policy which are difficult to grasp on the basis of the proposed analysis which remains at a macro scale.

With regard to economic actors, the analysis carried out by Samuel Klebaner subtly illustrates the multiplicity of roles assumed by automobile manufacturers during the regulatory process. Indeed, they are both the object of regulation, a stakeholder in its development through lobbying and consultation processes, and ultimately their role is also central in the implementation of new regulations through the adaptation of their industrial strategies. . However, it is sometimes difficult to understand why certain manufacturers are more able than others to assert their interests and what factors explain why their political power varies according to certain periods. This pending question is not without importance, because if technological constraints had been taken more into account by politicians in the recent evolution of legislation, the temptation to cheat would possibly have been less great.

The weight of economic constraints

In order to have a clearer vision of the structural constraints which weigh on the choices of the actors, it would be useful to complete the story with certain statistical series covering the period studied, for example on the number of workers employed by the automobile industry or even on the market shares of the different manufacturers.

Indeed, taking into account the interests of the automobile industry seems closely linked to its structural power, namely the importance it represents in terms of the production of wealth and jobs within different States. In this regard, the context of the industrial crisis and the oil crisis of the 1970s when regulation began certainly weighed on policy decisions, as did the increased competition from Japanese manufacturers. It would also be interesting to understand whether the ever-increasing reorganization of the automobile industry into a value chain on a global scale since the 1980s has a tendency to increase the power of manufacturers who can use their ” exit option » during the negotiations or, on the contrary, if the disappearance of various industrial sites in Europe leads to greater independence of politics from economic interests.

A metaphor for European construction

Ultimately, if certain questions remain open, Samuel Klebaner’s work has the immense merit of offering a convincing periodization of community regulation, in barely a hundred pages. Beyond the simple case study, his story is akin to “a metaphor for the history of European construction from 1957 to the present day, and of the critical phase into which it has entered since the 2000s” (p 87). As such, it constitutes an important contribution to shedding light on the contemporary democratic and environmental issues facing the European Union and its Member States.