Will: Welcome to the green element podcast, thank you, Nick, for joining us. Well, why don’t we start off with you telling us a bit about your business 和 what you’re trying to achieve through your business?
Nick: Yes, sir, my business, I found it, emissions analytics, back in 2011 和 the motivation was I observed that most of the official data initially focusing on fuel economy, so MPG, but also emissions were very misleading, the seriously underestimated real-world emissions 和 overestimated real world MPG. Rather than just doing a one-off study 和 publishing an 文章 leaving it there, what I was interested in is whether you could create a parallel system, what the official system should have been. So, was it impossible to test lots of vehicles for their real-world emissions 和 publish them for the general public 和 fleets 和 business 和 even manufacturers to use?
We considered a number of different types of technology for doing measurement 和 business models to be able to finance it, but we decided in the end on something called PIMS which is a portable emissions measurement system. It’s essentially a gas analyzer that you strap on a car 和 you sniff what comes out of the tailpipe. You sniff what comes out very accurately 和 second by second which gives you a very detailed picture of the real-world performance as a car drives along on the public highway. In terms of the technology of it, it’s very similar to what you find in a laboratory, it’s just packaged up into a smallish box which can go inside any type of vehicle.
So, we bought some equipment, hired some people 和 got testing 和 decided that the truth is in the data, I’m a great believer in empirical data leads to good decisions. My training is as an economist 和 what I was thinking was that the market was failing terribly because of this bad data. People were buying the wrong cars for their purpose 和 manufacturers were building the wrong cars 和 this needed to be put right. I did not expect something of the dramatic shape 和 size of dieselgate but essentially that was the point that marked the end for these very convenient, but deeply misleading official numbers 和 its really now opened up the whole field of real-world emissions. So, our businesses in a sense on that 和 we’re expanding in terms of testing more vehicles, testing more pollutants in more countries, 和 that’s our plan for the coming years.
Will: How do you choose which vehicles you want to test? Do you just choose the most popular ones that are sold 和 work down from there?
Nick: Well, firstly we try 和 test as many as we can get our hands on 和 we are roughly testing about 300 per year, so it’s a very large program, putting it in context. The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. runs a real-world program 和 they test about a hundred 和 fifty a year, so our numbers are higher. Our primary sampling method is new vehicles as they’re launched. So, whether they are big sellers or small sellers, we have a range across that 和 a range across 35 different manufacturers I think we’ve tested so far but we’re largely reactive to things being launched. What that means is that we are testing things as they are brand new 和 come to the market, so our data is right up to date.
Will: I’ve got so many questions I don’t even know where to start. I actually looked up my vehicle 和 you’ve actually got it, the VW Transporter. We converted into a camper 和 it came out as an A-plus-plus 和 I noticed some of them are As 和 some of them are A-pluses, is that a good sign? What should we be looking for when we go on 和 look up vehicles on your site?
Nick: Ok, well in a way you hit right to the heart of the point. Let’s assume you’re talking about the NOx rating, at the moment what you’ve got is, so diesel vehicles which everyone thinks that they’re all dirty 和 would be getting F, G 和 H ratings on our scale, actually, amongst the dirty ones are hiding some really clean ones. So, there’s at least 30, maybe 40, diesel vehicles that have gotten an A rating or better for NOx. That’s the significance of the biggest, most relevant, current significance is that at the time that cities are looking to do pretty draconian bands on diesel 和 governments are certainly setting policies which are even though they say it’s technology neutral are looking to squeeze diesel out of the market. It’s just at the moment the manufacturers are actually bringing forward some very clean diesel 和 some of which are cleaner than the equivalent petrol vehicle but if you interviewed a hundred people on the street, they would be not very many people who would appreciate this, but his true.
Taking it even further than that, so let’s say the diesel vehicle has equivalent NOx emissions to petrol, if you then look at CO2, well, the diesel will have about 18 percent less CO2 than the petrol, it will have about three quarters fewer particles than petrol 和 it will have lower carbon monoxide than petrol as well, almost certainly. So, we’re now in a situation where there are some, 和 these are a minority, but there is a good handful now of diesel out there which are probably better in all material respects than the equivalent petrol, yet people have abandoned buying diesel in large numbers 和 most of them have switched back to buying petrol. So, the consequence of dieselgate 和 the policy reaction to it has been to make air quality worse 和 make greenhouse gas emissions worse than they otherwise should be.
Will: But why is it that Joe public, 和 I put myself into this category, think diesel is dirtier because originally 和 initially, diesel was brought in, it was cheaper because there’s less refinery process that goes into it 和 therefore it’s in my view 和 it sounds like it’s wrong, it’s dirtier. So, is it because they’ve been able to change 和 manipulate the fumes that come out of it 和 made it less clean or cleaner?
Nick: The reason diesel was incentivized in the first place is that it is about, like the like, 25% more efficient, so better MPG than petrol 和 about 18% less CO2 than petrol. So, when the then labour government was really pushing the climate change agenda, a big increase in the penetration of diesel vehicles was seen as a way of rapidly 和 significantly reducing our CO2 emissions. That was actually good thinking, it was a good rationale, the problem was the air quality side of it 和 diesel, if untreated, will emit significantly more nitrogen oxides than petrol which is a local air pollutant which leads to health problems.
The European regulations were meant to guard 和 make sure that vehicles were low NOx through the Euro stages. We’re currently euro six 和 Euro five before that which ended in 2015, they were things which were meant to say NOx will be very low 和 they need to meet this stand. The problem was due to the incestuous way that the regulators 和 the OEMs are in Europe, they drafted the regulations in such a way that they were full of loopholes.
Nick: Yeah, the car manufacturers, so they are far too close to each other in Europe. And so, it created a series of regulations that sounded great on the surface of it but contained all sorts of perfectly legal loopholes which meant you could technically meet the Euro standard but when you drove the car on the road, the NOx emissions were much higher. That was going on for years 和 years 和 years 和 we were saying hey, there’s a problem here, but this carried on until dieselgate, created these wonderful sounding clean vehicles which in practice they just weren’t. Now, why did manufacturers do that?
They did that essentially to save money because to put the technology on the car to get the NOx down is expensive, they can do it but it’s expensive, so if they can avoid doing it by exploiting a loophole, they did it 和 they did it. Unlike in America where they didn’t have the loopholes 和 all the diesel were perfectly clean, except the VW ones where they actually broke the law.
Nick: And the fine in Europe to my knowledge it has not been disclosed what the fine has been for what wrongdoing the fine has been for. So, my take on it is that they’ve been beaten up behind the bike sheds 和 told to cough up some money so we government can say we find you. They haven’t published any real details as to what the infraction is meant to have been, I suspect there’s probably some technical paperwork infraction that has been found so maybe there is a technical non-compliance. But it is very different from the US which was a very significant 和 clear-cut violation, which is why it’s cost them about 30 billion dollars to put right.
Nick: I think a small proportion of it is actually some monetary fine, but you’re absolutely right, they’re being forced to fund the development of an electric charging infrastructure. Which is what the US does in previous infractions by other people, they get the miscreant to pay up 和 use that to fund the future development of the transportation infrastructure.
Nick: It was made easier by the fact that VW confessed in the U.S., so it was clear-cut that they had done something wrong. That’s why the settlements happened quite quickly, they were very expensive, but they were quick 和 clean. Most of the legal action is out of the way in the US, the one that rumbles on more is in Europe because it’s all messy 和 unclear whether they’ve done anything wrong. The European regulations due to this incestuous relationship were created with these loopholes which they then used, meaning that the cars on the road were actually dirty despite being legal.
This is not a small problem, there are approximately 40 million of these diesel vehicles that are over emitting on the roads of Europe, about 8 million of which are in the UK. That is one of the big reasons why cities are missing their air quality targets, that’s a large number of vehicles. It’s also the reason that everyone is scared of actually tackling the problem because putting right 40 million dirty diesel vehicles, which as you said have been sold to people in good faith 和 in fact, they’ve been positively encouraged to buy them. Suddenly having to put that right, it is a big argument as to who should foot the bill 和 because the manufacturers have not done anything technically legally wrong it’s proving very hard for the government to get them to fund it. So, there’s currently a big battle going on as to who should pay to clean up these 40 million vehicles.
So, that’s the nature of them but diesel, if you do deploy the after-treatment system correctly, like what happened in the US on BMWs, on Mercedes, on Chevrolet’s, they can be very clean. It comes at a bit of a price so that is why diesel is slightly more expensive than the equivalent petrol. So, to buy they’re slightly more expensive, but then you get the 25 percent fuel economy advantage, so it pays you back, even if you do average mileage, it pays back quite quickly. Why does everyone think all diesel is dirty? Well, it is, it is dieselgate 和 the reaction to it from policymakers which has led to this blanket demonization of diesel when actually the truth of it is yes there are a lot of dirty ones out there but there are some clean ones as well 和 don’t tarnish a technology for what actually is a regulatory failure.
Will: Now I’m going to ask the next question kind of having spoken to Anna 和 I’ve spoken to you before. I want to go out 和 buy a hybrid petrol vehicle, what are your thoughts on that? So, there’s a lot of vehicles out there now, you have all the batteries 和 you can charge them up 和 you can drive around the city for thirty dollars an hour or until the battery goes down 和 then you switch over to petrol, is that a good thing?
Nick: A plug-in hybrid, ok. So, plug-in hybrids, they’re one of those things which on the surface of it, they sound like the best of both worlds 和 it is true that they probably are the best of both worlds, but actually for fairly narrow usage case. They turn very rapidly being the worst of all worlds if you use them in a different way. The problem with the battery is it’ll only take you 10, 20 miles, something like that 和 then after that, you’re running on the engine. Firstly, the engine is typically a downsized engine, so you’ll then have a small engine trying to power quite a reasonably large car 和 that will be fundamentally inefficient. Plus, you’ve got this battery which is heavy, so you’re carrying around a dead weight, which makes that even worse.
So, you go very rapidly from the first 20 miles on the battery which is only 30 emissions-free 和 efficient to then something which is much less efficient than if you just got a normal car. So, what’s crucial is what are the pattern of journeys that you drive? If you drive lots of short journeys 和 you have the opportunity to charge up in between then it probably is a good option. If you are driving longer journeys 和 or you don’t have a chance to charge it up every time, then it can be a lot worse than going for say one of these very clean diesel vehicles. The added thing which is a bit of a bizarre observation is that actually many of the people who’ve bought these plug-in hybrids have been incentivized to deliberately not charge them up. So, these have been particularly popular on company car fleets because of the low VED, but many of those same companies pay for your fuel but they don’t pay for the extra electricity of your home electricity bill. When you go home you have a positive incentive not to charge up your plug-in hybrid.
The government is well aware of this problem 和 they’re trying to figure out what to do 和 I think that’s partly behind why the plug-in tax grant thing was withdrawn recently to much outcry. Essentially, is it abuse? I don’t know but it’s an unintended consequence of the interaction of the VED with the company car rules. Quite a lot of plug-in hybrids on the road that people deliberately don’t charge up but let’s say you’re well behaved 和 you do charge up at every opportunity you can, if you’re doing lots of short journeys, actually, it probably is a good choice you have very low tailpipe emissions. If you’re doing longer journeys, then it will be worse on CO2, Co 和 particles than diesel, so you need to think carefully. I would certainly say they are not a Panacea, they are not some technology with is going to transform the car market. I think they will work fine for a narrow market share.
Traditional hybrids, non-plug-in hybrids for generalized driving is quite a good bet 和 it is a viable alternative to the diesel vehicle in terms of comparable fuel economy. Particularly the Toyota Prius, the fourth generation Toyota Prius has really come on a lot in terms of its fuel economy. You still need to pick quite carefully but those traditional or full hybrids as they’re called, are quite a good bet if you like that type of vehicle. It does come with certain driving characteristics, if you like rapid acceleration 和 the lowdown talk you get with diesel then a hybrid is not for you but if you’re not that style of driver, then it’s a good choice.
Will: I used to own a Honda Civic IMA, we bought it a long time ago 和 I no longer own it but we bought it because we figured it was the most environmental thing at that time when Toyota Prius was just coming out as well. We were doing longer distances, so, therefore, I figured that because we were on the motorway more than going shorter distances it made more sense to have electric powering the acceleration as opposed to then just charging up as we were cruising. What’re your thoughts on that technology?
two-thirds of the heat is wasted 和 quite a lot of that is in breaking. So, if you can recapture some of that energy by regenerative braking 和 then use that to help accelerate the vehicle, that’s a very good approach. We haven’t tested that Civic IMA, I think it predates our testing.
Will: It’s really not that black 和 white is it?
Nick: In all this there is nothing, there is no black 和 white even pure battery electric vehicles the two concerns are obviously one is the source of the electricity in the first place. Now, that is actually in pretty much all countries around the world, it’s still better to have the EV unless you’re doing it a hundred percent on coal then you will be better on CO2. But again, the gap is not as big as you think when you take into account that upstream CO2. The other thing to bear in mind with pure EVs is those vehicles are like-for-like heavier than internal combustion, the battery pack is very heavy 和 tire wear is a function of vehicle weight. So, you get more tire wear on an EV than you do on a traditional vehicle 和 that is linked to this whole microplastics debate.
So, what happens is you get all these tiny vulcanized rubber beads or abrasions from the tires, which then gets washed into the drains, which then gets washed into the sea 和 end up inside fish, which is the current worry. So, you may have an EV which is let’s say 20% lower CO2, but it has higher particles. So, you probably overall you could argue that it is still better for the environment in the round, but it’s not so dramatically different. I haven’t mentioned lithium 和 coal, but I don’t really want to get into that.
Nick: Yeah. Well, I mean it’s one of those which has become a very emotional 和 charged debate as to the right 和 wrong of digging up Cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s not something which is my particular area of specialty, so I’ll leave it to others, but if you just look at it in the emission sense, so an EZ will be better for CO2, but it will be worse for particles, so choose your poison is my general thing. There’s no clear 和 easy way out of this, this is a long-term thing for the industry to make their cars better 和 better, year-on-year. For the consumer, it’s a question of informing yourself 和 making sure you’re buying the cleanest vehicle for what you’re going to do with it.
You can make a huge difference as a consumer if you buy the quote ‘wrong vehicle’, you can make a massive difference compared to buying the most suitable vehicle 和 that’s why it was so tragic that all the official figures turned out to be misleading in Europe because it was misinforming people. And so, people thought they were doing the right thing from an environmental point of view, but often they were doing exactly the wrong thing. That’s what motivated me in the first place to try 和 set this right.
Will: Here’s something that we could do, we could set up a questionnaire that asks a series of questions 和 then leads you down to end up with a car that suits you.
Nick: Oh yeah, exactly. I mean, that can definitely be done to say, tell us how you drive, we know what you need, how big does your vehicle need to be? What’s your driving style? What’s the road mix that you like running the AC all the time? We have all that sort of data that allows you to be effective. We can ingest if you put telematics in your vehicle 和 then send us the details of how you’ve driven, we can model that through our data 和 say actually for your driving the most suitable vehicle is X.
Nick: We do a service like that in America where if you go on the motortrend.com website, you can choose your car 和 then you can tailor it by telling us about your road mix 和 driving style 和 congestion levels. It’ll take the headline MPG number 和 it will give you your personalized MPG, it’s called EQUA MPG. It’s only in the U.S. market at the moment, but it works, it works quite effectively, it illustrates the point of if you change that driving style slider for a hybrid it hugely affects the MGP, but if you do it on a 2-liter diesel, it has very little effect. Behind the scenes, it can be done with using detailed telematics data if there’s interest.
Will: So, if you’ve got the Audi A4 estates, you’ve got the VW transporter 2-liter, you’ve got a VW Golf 2-liter 和 the Skoda, whatever Skoda Fabia 2-liter, you’ve got basically all the same engines. Are you going to get the same emissions coming out the back? Or is it absolutely different?
Nick: If you’re talking about one of the relatively recent versions of those models within the last two years, then you will get very similar levels of emissions, pollutant emissions, so, NOx, Co or particles, very similar. They share the same after treatment systems, they have particle filters on them which are 99% effective, they’ll be virtually no carbon monoxide because diesel generally doesn’t produce it anyway. Where it will be different will be on MPG 和 CO2 but that will be largely a function of the weight of the vehicle.
Nick: Well, I think actually the lineages is quite close in that it is a market failure 和 that’s what a lot of Economics studies but in practical terms. I mean, I’ve done a lot of work in automotive data in pricing over the years 和 it was a question which kept getting raised by associates 和 friends saying I just bought a car, the brochure said it was going to do 60 miles to a gallon, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, I’m only getting 45, is it broken? Should I take it back to the garage? When enough people had asked me this, I thought there’s something going on here, they can’t all be broken. And also, whenever they took their car back to the garage these friends would be fobbed off or something cosmetic would be done to it, the car would be handed back 和 told there’s nothing wrong with it 和 they’d still be getting 45.
So, I smelled an issue there 和 I tried to find data in the public domain but found very little 和 so the only way to really bottom this out is to go 和 collect some primary data ourselves. Very rapidly uncovered, at the time it was 20 odd percent average difference on MPG which tends every year we were testing, that grew every year, it’s now about 35% gap. We measured NOx at the same time 和 we weren’t expecting it, we weren’t really focused on NOx, we didn’t expect an issue, but when we started looking at our data, we found five times exceedances on average. Then dieselgate happened which meant that those who tried to explain away the findings that we were getting 和 say, oh, this is all perfectly explainable, nothing to see here, it’s because how you drive or it’s because it’s a bit cold, with proven to be actually it was an industrial scale, legal cheating that was causing it. So, yeah from that, why can’t I get the MPG in the brochure, led one step at a time to unearthing what was going on behind dieselgate.
Nick: Yeah, we’ve tested over 2,000 cars, vans, diggers, cranes, trucks, tractors, generators, barges. We’ve tested pretty much anything that burns fossil fuel. We stuck our equipment on 和 we built possibly, I think it is the largest commercially available database worldwide of real-world missions.
Nick: In terms of our activity, I would say it’s roughly a third UK, a third Europe, 和 a third US. We have also just launched a joint venture in Korea as well, which is it’s a nascent stage. But yeah, UK was our original center 和 then we branched out into Germany 和 the US.
Nick: Well, it is entirely privately funded by private shareholders 和 we put all the data we gather into a database 和 people can pay to subscribe. So, if you want to know the detail behind our public ratings, you subscribe 和 pay money for that, you can also commission us to do testing. So, those two revenue streams are what fund the equity program.
Nick: It’s a wide range actually, car manufacturers. You do get sometimes the absurd thing that their PR departments are criticizing us publicly at the same time as their engineers are subscribing, but rationality is overrated. So, manufacturers 和 government regulators have bought it, some of the tier one suppliers have but also, interestingly, financial institutions as well. So, there’s obviously a lot of money riding on what’s the future of diesel as technology 和 should whatever sovereign wealth fund should they be keeping their investments in, BMW or whoever it is or should they be getting out because their profitability is going to fall. So, actually, ours gives a leading indicator of the share price performance of these companies they are exposed.
Nick: Well, there’s a massive difference between the best 和 the worst manufacturers, so some of them are really clean on average but others are still very dirty even today. It may come as a surprise but one of the very cleanest manufacturers for their diesel vehicles in practice is Volkswagen.
Nick: How this can be is maybe a story for another day but it’s true, so really you could argue you go long in the ones that are clean 和 you go short in the ones that are dirty but then you’ve also got the overriding thing is diesel is a technology, is it going to be, in practice, outlawed by government city regulations.
Nick: There’s a lot of money riding on it 和 so we provide data which allows people to refine their investment decisions.
Will: Are you finding that the environment 和 sustainability as a whole are driving a lot of maybe subscriptions to your service or wanting to have knowledge of what it is you’re doing 和 understanding cars or do you think it’s purely financially driven?
Nick: I think the people who are using our ratings, the EQUA index ratings, are doing it for that motivation. So, it’s either private individuals or fleets wanting to do the right thing, wanting to take an environmental decision. From the subscriber side, I think it doesn’t work quite like that, the primary thing you’re generally responding to is the regulations. So, you want to see what our view of how compliant people’s cars are, they want to know how good their technology is compared to their rival’s technology. They want to know if they’ve got a car which is a bit risky, a bit marginal for compliance, those sorts of things. So, whether or not in the background in their minds they have as an environmental motivation, I don’t know but the primary motivation is to produce compliant cars that sell well 和 that’s what our data can help them with.
Will: So, what could our listeners do if they want to buy a new car? Where would you suggest they go? What sort of things would they think about? Could they go to the American website 和 have a look at it 和 will that give them an idea of the type of vehicle for the UK or if you’re not in the U.S. as a listener?
Nick: So, we’ve got local sites in a lot of countries now, so if you’re in the U.S. you go to usa.equaindex.com 和 you have all the ratings based on our U.S. test program. If you go to just the regular www.equaindex.com you’ll get to the UK data, but equally, there’s fr.equaindex.com for France, Italy has one, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, all have localized, in the local language version of our ratings. So, I think from a buyer’s point of view, whether you’re a business buyer or a private buyer, go 和 do the research, do not trust the labeling that says euro-6. When you see that in the brochure, think I really need to look it up on equaindex.com to see what the reality is. It’s been totally debased as a rating, Euro 6, 和 you should not trust it 和 you need to find out the real worlds. Go to our site 和 then you can get the real-world NOx, Co 和 fuel economy 和 CO2.
Nick: Well, I think the answer is yes 和 no. We will not suddenly create our own certification system 和 we will not change from the European system to say the American system, it’s not going to happen, we will still use the European system for certification. Where it might diverge is in what’s called surveillance, so governments are meant to basically do spot-checking like America does to make sure no one’s cheating. So, random selection of vehicles every year then you test the vehicles 和 just make sure everyone’s behaving themselves. Now, the European regulations set down a requirement for surveillance.
Will: Brilliant. well, Nick, thank you so much for your time today. It was brilliant learning more about what cars to buy 和 the whole thing about emissions 和 how it’s not black 和 white.
Nick: Every individual can make a material difference if they buy well 和 that’s a good thing, so people are not powerless. With this information, you can then make a better decision 和 make a genuine impact on the environment, so I think that’s something that everyone can go away 和 bear in mind when they’re going shopping for their next car. Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s been an interesting discussion 和 it’s three years after dieselgate 和 the thing is very much not gone away 和 I’m expecting this issue to rumble for years 和 years to come.