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Volkswagen not only emission-test cheat, car campaigners claim

Volkswagen admitted Monday to equipping its diesel-fuelled cars in the United States with software to hide their pollution levels. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

France joined other European nations in calling for continent-wide investigations into the automotive sector on Tuesday after German manufacturer Volkswagen admitted it had installed software into diesel cars to cheat US emission tests. Industry observers groups warned that Europe lacks real independent oversight.

Volkswagen said it plans to set aside 6.5 billion euros to help cover the costs of the scandal, which is forcing it to recall 482,000 cars in the United States and possibly face criminal charges and fines of up to the equivalent of 16 million euros.

Environmental groups and industry observers expressed hope the scandal, revealed Friday by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Europe-based International Council for Clean Transportation, would draw attention to practices they believe to be commonplace in the car industry.

“I was pleased that somebody finally provided the key piece of evidence that proved what we and a number of other people have been saying: that cars were able to detect they were being detected and artificially reducing their test results in doing so,” said Greg Archer, Clean Vehicles Manager with think tank Transport & Environment.

“It is a problem that we may well find goes beyond diesel to gasoline vehicles, because these types of defeat devices could also be used to artificially improve the fuel economy or carbon dioxide results,” he added, claiming there was “substantial evidence” of “a general problem with the car industry trying to manipulate its tests to achieve regulatory limits at the lowest possible costs without concern for how that actually affects the real-world emissions or real-world performance of those vehicles”.

Calls for reviews of carmakers rang out in Germany, Italy and France, where Finance Minister Michel Sapin called for a continent-wide investigation, even if he suggested there was “no particular reason” to suspect any French companies of any wrongdoing.

One of the country’s main manufacturers, PSA Peugeot Citroën, insisted it “respected the established approval processes in every country” where it was present.

“I think the French government is trying to get to grips with the scale of this problem and understand the extent of it,” said Archer, adding that he doubted the government really “believe[d] that their own manufacturers have a clean bill of health”.

However, environmental groups also warn the absence of an independent European regulator like the EPA would make it easier for carmakers to hide the use of software programs like those found in the US.

“It would be possible to instal effective controls if the authorities would give the according order to do so,” said Dorothee Saar of German environmental protection group Deutsche Umwelthilfe.

“These tests have to be transparent and the results published. I think we are in a state where neither policy nor car manufacturers can behave like nothing has happened.”

The European Commission said it was up to national governments to carry out investigations and that it was too early to see whether European-level surveillance was necessary.

Across the ocean, American legal sources said the government had opened a criminal investigation into Volkswagen.