Latest EU proposal raises concerns for car repairs

Posted on February 15th, 2016 by Rob Marshall



Despite being a Europhile and not wanting to get embroiled into the Brexit debate, I have always said that the recent new car emissions scandal is not only the fault of car manufacturers but also legislators. Perhaps, in a bid to try and divert blame from its bureaucrats, the European Commission (EC) has been burning the midnight oil (in an environmentally-friendly way, of course), to draft a complex proposal, with the aim of making it law as quickly as possible in all EU member states.

After wading through the documentation, I have come away worried. While some aspects appear to be well intentioned, I am concerned about not only the practical implementation, and how certain important details are incomplete, but also how the new legislation might stifle creativity, impose bureaucracy and instil extra costs on small and medium-sized automotive businesses (SMEs), while being a barrier to the future creation of safety beneficial components. It could also restrict consumer choice, inconvenience road users and damage trust between governing bodies and the public, if adopted in its current form.

A good thing

The new Technical Harmonisation proposition, which was made available at the end of January, seeks to ensure that another emissions scandal cannot be repeated. In short, the EC is empowering itself to ensure extra scrutiny on new vehicles, so that they comply with their Whole Vehicle Type Approval certificates (WVTA), essentially a ‘birth certificate’ for every new car model, which includes emissions data in far greater detail than the basic measurements taken at MoT testing stations. Few reasonable people would argue that there is anything wrong with that.

From a new car perspective, other measures appear to be positive, too. There will be more ‘independent’ assessments of the emissions test centres, which are paid for by the car manufacturers to perform the pollution tests for Type Approval. Plus, there will be spot-checks on the manufacturers themselves and the potential for greater sanctions against any misbehaving carmakers and technical authorities, more about which is reported here.

Not everyone is convinced, however, and some commentators are worried that the bond between national regulators and their carmakers remains too cosy and the new proposal lacks sufficient bite to break-up the relationship.

A good thing for carmakers – bad for consumers?

Ironically, it is also being debated that the new legislation has impacts far greater than the EC envisages. Currently, for replacement parts, only certain exhaust emissions and safety critical items have to hold official Type Approval standards, to allow them to be sold, fitted and used on the highway. This includes replacement tyres and lighting components.

The new proposal cites that, with the exception of racing cars, all replacement parts will require Type Approval but the essential questions involving testing methodology (and the cost of undergoing the procedure) have not been answered. Are they used, or even set, by the carmakers, for example? As silly as the case in point might be, the EC may decide to include the type approval of non-safety critical items, such as an ashtray or a badge. Okay, this might be hyperbole but some onlookers are concerned that the EC is giving itself the power to make these decisions, if it wants to, perhaps without understanding the full implications of its actions.

Naturally, the improvement of standards is a good thing. In my experience, most quality European aftermarket parts not made by the carmaker (and I do not refer to online auction site ‘cheapies’), are made to equivalent, if not better, standards. Therefore, meeting a quality target tends not be the issue; the bureaucratic cost could be a major hurdle, which the EC appears to consider as unimportant. For example, if the cost of obtaining the relevant paperwork were the same throughout the motor industry, it would be unviable for SMEs to develop certain products that sell in the low hundreds, compared to carmakers that sell similar components in the millions.

The result may be that the spare parts market will contract, innovation will suffer and, ironically, the car manufacturers could gain a competitive advantage. The consumer may be given fewer options than visiting a main dealer’s parts counter, as a result. There is also no mention about how the classic car and automotive restoration industries will be affected. It could also push up crash repair costs (and, therefore, insurance premiums) if it threatens the non-genuine panel industry, which provides less expensive but safe alternatives to main dealer-supplied body parts.

The move might also prevent aftermarket safety items from being developed. For example, if a company wants to sell an aftermarket tyre pressure monitoring kit, the presence of which has obvious safety benefits, it might not be cost effective to have it tested under the same regime as a part fitted by a car manufacturer, if that is what the EC decides. Yet, the current consumer and technical laws are in place, to ensure that components are still required to comply with certain standards, as well as being fit-for-purpose.

The same UK and European laws prevent the sale of unsafe, illegal, or non-compliant car parts, already. Selling, fitting and using non-Type Approved exterior bulbs on the road is illegal. Selling tuning accessories that increase pollution levels is also illegal. Yet, such parts are retailed openly in the UK, often by established limited companies. Therefore, implementation is the problem. Stepping-up enforcement of existing laws could be a more positive move, rather than simply creating lots of new legislation that will hurt companies that are producing good quality, compliant products.

Could you be affected?

In a major change, the proposal is looking to introduce spot-checks on vehicles, after they have been registered. While we are unsure about how this would be carried out (yet another detail that is missing from the proposal), they could involve motorists being stopped and their vehicles being subjected to random inspections, to ensure that their cars still comply with the specifications listed on the WVTA certificates, including exhaust emissions. The EC is also giving itself the power to undertake the inspections, over that of the member state’s testing regime – the DVSA (VOSA) in the UK’s case.

What happens next?

The next stage of the proceedings will see the proposal debated in a member state working group tomorrow (February 16th). They have eight weeks to report back to the European Parliament. If they do not, the EC will presume that the silent member state has no objections and the proposal would be adopted into an EU regulation without any changes (which is unlikely, as it is suspected at least one member state has voiced concerns already). Notably, the new proposal will become a regulation, meaning that it cannot be adapted by UK lawmakers afterwards and must be complied with in full.

While any enhancement in standards and safety can be welcomed, I hope that the proposals will be thought about and debated in considerably more detail. While there are some positive moves, there are dangers that advances to improve road safety, maintain consumer choice, bolster a free market and encourage innovation, could be prejudiced.