No one is likely to quickly forget what's going on at Volkswagen, and vehicle testing is already under the microscope. In the north of England, not far south of Preston is the town of Leyland, where one company has launched an operation to give manufacturers a place to make 100% sure their vehicles will perform as intended.
In October 2013 CSA Group, a Canadian enterprise, bought the comprehensive testing facility formerly known as mi Technology Group and brought it right up to cutting-edge standard. Everything from simple type approval tests to whole vehicle testing is available on-site. Testing is rigorous, comprehensive, high-quality and confidential, says the facility's Global Director, Dr Paul Wilkington.
“We test almost every system on a vehicle, from engine and driveline through chassis and body systems and on into interior systems such as seats and trim,” the former MIRA and BAE Systems man explains. “Highly specialised laboratories are used to impose loads and environments representing real-world use patterns – but with exceptional repeatability and with large amounts of data collection and analysis.”
UK jobs for UK skills
In short, the firm can find problems that designers didn't know their vehicles had, giving them a chance to fix flaws before they reach production cars. The facility has been on the Leyland site for 35 years, but after the CSA Group purchase things have been pushed forwards at pace. For the new owners there was never any question of moving it out of the UK.
“Britain remains one of the world’s great centres of transportation technology development,” says Paul. “It has a rich history and a tremendous depth of engineering capability. Several of the world’s leading automotive, aerospace and rail companies have significant presence in the UK – and are experiencing strong growth. So we see the UK as a great place to be.”
As Paul continues, education comes to the fore. It's becoming a huge part of what the CSA Leyland site offers to its local area and beyond. Extensive links throughout the transport industry help students learn faster than they ever could in a classroom. It's the expertise at the British arm's disposal that will make it a key location in CSA's global plans. Engineers here will help colleagues from all over the world when needed.
But the questions inevitably turn to Volkswagen and its bizarre decision to falsify emissions tests in the most stringent European and North American markets. The E 189 diesel engines put out more particulates than claimed, and that's potentially bad for public health. Some of the finest particulates from diesel engines have been proven to be carcinogenic. How has VW gotten away with it for so long?
Paul summarises the facts. “The very technology that enables cars to meet what are extremely low emissions requirements gives the opportunity for the car to detect when it is being subject to an emissions test,” he says.
“If the car can detect it is on an emissions test then there is also the opportunity for the control algorithm within the engine management system to change the mode of operation to do something different to what it would do on the public road.”
But there's not necessarily a fundamental problem with diesel, he adds, especially since the introduction of Euro 6 emissions compliance. “Technology has been developed that delivers really clean diesel vehicle emissions with very low levels of particulate emissions.
“What diesel engines do deliver is outstanding fuel efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions combined with strong performance. So they are contributing to CO2 reduction.”
Road tax changes
Questions have been asked as to whether Britain should change its road tax system to better reflect particulate emissions; a scheme that would penalise drivers of older diesels and reward those who choose efficient petrols and the newest diesels. Paul thinks that's the wrong approach, but does acknowledge that company car taxes already reflect particulates.
“I think that rather than just focus on particulates, a whole life-cycle analysis should be used to balance all the competing factors such as health impacts from particulates, NOx and CO emissions, environmental impact from CO2 and unburned hydrocarbons emissions, environmental impact of manufacturing the vehicles and the environmental impact of end-of-life recycling.”
That's a lot to think about and not easy to quantify. It would keep the EU bureaucrats busy with complex maths for a good while, but perhaps, following the crisis at Europe's biggest car maker, it's time to start doing things properly.