Announcing an investigation into the home appliance industry on the anniversary of Dieselgate

First published 18 September 2016 (we’re migrating our blog)

This time last year the Dieselgate scandal erupted. The notorious cheating brought a car giant to its knees and is now threatening others. Less well known are the regulatory parallels between automotive and the appliance sector.

What are the parallels?

LG was caught fiddling its fridges in 2010 (government source) and was forced to cough up $3 million AUD after faking the energy efficiency of 5 LG air conditioners. Only this month lawyers accused engineering and electronics company Bosch of conspiring with VW. A new report for the European Parliament’s inquiry committee into emissions measurement in the automotive sector points to regulatory problems that are strikingly similar to those in the home appliance sector. The report highlights compliance tests at odds with real world conditions, industry representatives dominating the standardisation bodies that write those tests, and weak enforcement of the rules, all problems also facing the appliance sector.

For years Coolproducts has been calling for the implementation of recommendations strikingly similar to those found in this new report, namely:

  • Tests that reflect consumer usage of products
    For cars, this has been dubbed ‘Real Driving Emissions’ test, an end to tests that are highly manipulated and unrepresentative of real world conditions. The same problem exists with home appliances. As Dyson points out, consumers are misled about real world energy consumption because vacuum cleaner tests, for example, use empty bags;
  • An end to the free breaks
    Following dieselgate, carmakers were given permission to pollute above what the rules say: 110% on top of the legal limit of 80mg/km starting from 2017, and 50% from 2020 onwards. For home appliances and electronics, a ‘tolerance’ loophole allowed manufacturers to legally overstate the energy performance of their products, leading to €2 billion in consumer losses per year. Coolproducts was instrumental in pushing EU regulators to close the loophole for most products, but it was left open for the lighting industry after it complained that full compliance would cause too much disruption. Deception that is ‘too big to nail’, it seems.
  • Tests worthy of the name
    If we want to avoid another VW scandal, we need more and better testing done. This should be independent and able to impose exemplary fines to ensure compliance is a no-brainer, preserving a level playing field of honest manufacturers.

Stepping forward

Seeing such similarities between the automotive and appliance sectors, Coolproducts and partner NGOs Topten and CLASP have commissioned independent laboratories to test whether there is any evidence of defeat devices in some of the most popular models of televisions, refrigerators and dishwashers. Proving defeat devices is not easy, so the €400,000 Smart Testing of Energy Products (STEP) project will also look into unrealistic testing conditions, loopholes and other areas letting down EU product standards. The results could help us move towards better testing methods, greater legal clarity and market enforcement worthy of the name.

Meanwhile, it is not only environmental organisations that are connecting the dots between cars and appliances. European energy labelling rules are currently being revised and all sides seem to agree on the inclusion of a ‘Volkswagen clause’ to make it clear that defeat devices are not just unethical, but also illegal. Sadly, the law today does not rule this out and products can behave differently in the test lab and the home. We’re glad to see that some of the most active national authorities are also seriously considering these issues. EU product policies and honest manufacturers are set to deliver mind-boggling energy savings for consumers and the environment, but the playing field must be level.

This blog was written by sustainable energy consultant Francisco Zuloaga who consults for the STEP project.