Green Element weekly podcast Interview with Nick Molden from Emissions Analytics
We are thrilled to be interviewing Nick Molden from Emissions Analytics, a business that is trying to educate us on what the actual emissions are for the vehicle you drive. The government is trying to get us to stop driving Diesel vehicles what if you were to understand that the new diesel vehicles are greener and cleaner than the new petrol ones? The government is a few years behind the actual emissions. Nick is busy testing vehicles from all around the world and letting us know the actual emissions of your vehicle! It turns out some of their customers are the car companies themselves! Listen and enjoy – it blew my mind! I hope it blows yours!
Nick founded Emissions Analytics in 2011 in order to understand real-world fuel economy and emissions from vehicles. The concept was to find a way to
For more info please visit The EQUA Index ratings for fuel economy and vehicle emissions.
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 and what you’re trying to achieve through your business?
Nick: Yes, sir, my business, I found it, emissions analytics, back in 2011 and 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 and overestimated real world MPG. Rather than just doing a one-off study and publishing an article 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 and publish them for the general public and fleets and business and even manufacturers to use?
We considered a number of different types of technology for doing measurement and 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 and you sniff what comes out of the tailpipe. You sniff what comes out very accurately and 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 and got testing and 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 and 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 and manufacturers were building the wrong cars and this needed to be put right. I did not expect something of the dramatic shape and size of
Will: How do you choose which vehicles you want to test? Do you just choose the most popular ones that are sold and work down from there?
Nick: Well, firstly we try and test as many as we can get our hands on and 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 and they test about a hundred and 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 and 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 and 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 and you’ve actually got it, the VW Transporter. We converted into a camper and it came out as an A-plus-plus and I noticed some of them are As and some of them are A-pluses, is that a good sign? What should we be looking for when we go on and look up vehicles on your site?
Nick: Can I ask, was that for the NOx emissions on the EQUA AQ rating or was it one of the other ratings?
Will: Now you’re asking.
Nick: The reason I ask is
Will: Yes, it is. Yeah, it is diesel.
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 and would be getting F, G and 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 and 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 and 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 and it will have lower carbon monoxide than petrol as well, almost certainly. So, we’re now in a situation where there are some, and 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 and most of them have switched back to buying petrol. So, the consequence of
Will: But why is it that Joe public, and I put myself into this category, think diesel is dirtier because originally and initially, diesel was brought in, it was cheaper because there’s less refinery process that goes into it and therefore it’s in my view and it sounds like it’s wrong, it’s dirtier. So, is it because they’ve been able to change and manipulate the fumes that come out of it and 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 and about 18% less CO2 than petrol. So, when the then
The European regulations were meant to guard and make sure that vehicles were low NOx through the Euro stages. We’re currently euro six and Euro five before that which ended in 2015, they were things which were meant to say NOx will be very low and they need to meet this stand. The problem was due to the incestuous way that the regulators and the OEMs are in Europe, they drafted the regulations in such a way that they were full of loopholes.
Will: When you say OEM, do you mean like VW, Ford?
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 and years and years and we were saying hey, there’s a problem here, but this carried on until
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 and they did it. Unlike in America where they didn’t have the loopholes and all the diesel were perfectly clean, except the VW ones where they actually broke the law.
Will: Very interesting.
Nick: Yes, the VW as far as anyone can really tell is, they have not broken the law in Europe in the way that they broke it in the United States.
Will: That’s the reason why the fine was so much more in the U.S. than it was in Europe.
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 and 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 and clear-cut violation, which is why it’s cost them about 30 billion dollars to put right.
Will: They are not actually physically paying a fine are they in the U.S.? They’re actually being asked to put money into the electrical cord infrastructure.
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 and use that to fund the future development of the transportation infrastructure.
Will: How forward thinking is that? What forward-thinking way to do things?
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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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
Will: Now I’m going to ask the next question kind of having spoken to Anna and I’ve spoken to you before. I want to go out and 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 and you can charge them up and you can drive around the city for thirty dollars an hour or until the battery goes down and then you switch over to petrol, is that a good thing?
Nick: So, are you specifically talking a plug-in hybrid that you’re looking at?
Will: Yeah, a plug-in hybrid.
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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and you have the opportunity to charge up in between then it probably is a good option. If you are driving longer journeys and 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 and they’re trying to figure out what to do and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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?
Nick: Well, the one bit that is definitely beneficial is the regenerative braking, the Achilles heel of the internal combustion engine is it operates at about 35% thermal efficiency,
two-thirds of the heat is wasted and quite a lot of that is in breaking. So, if you can recapture some of that energy by regenerative braking and 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: Well, yeah, it’s more about technology as a whole. I was looking at buying a petrol vehicle that was a hybrid. Is that a good way to go into its very completely combined both technologies, you’re neither on pure electric neither on pure petrol.
Nick: If you have something which is effective regenerative braking and is using that for power boosting to keep the internal combustion engine at its most efficient spot with the electricity then making up the difference when you need a burst then that is very nice, very clever. That has now been over the generations of hybrids have been really refined and made better and better, so it is good. But I would caveat that if you compare it to the best diesel on the market, actually the differences are not so dramatically different it’s probably now pulled ahead of diesel, but we’re not talking twice as good as diesel, we’re talking about incremental improvements. So, one observation to make about hybrid compared to diesel is, if you take an average sized diesel vehicle and drive it really hard then it doesn’t make your MPG that much worse. Whereas if you go and take a hybrid vehicle and drive it really hard, heavy acceleration, up hills, then the fuel economy will suffer badly. So, you’ve got a sensitivity, so if you are a light-footed driver then a hybrid would probably be a very good option. But don’t then drive aggressively because then the thing may well be worse than the alternative.
Will: It’s really not that black and white is it?
Nick: In all this there is nothing, there is no black and 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 and tire wear is a function of vehicle weight. So, you get more tire wear on an EV than you do on a traditional vehicle and 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 and 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 and coal, but I don’t really want to get into that.
Will: We actually have that on another podcast, funny enough we’ve got a battery manufacturer that talks about that.
Nick: Yeah. Well, I mean it’s one of those which has become a very emotional and charged debate as to the right and 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 and easy way out of this, this is a long-term thing for the industry to make their cars better and better, year-on-year. For the consumer, it’s a question of informing yourself and 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 and 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 and set this right.
Will: Here’s something that we could do, we could set up a questionnaire that asks a series of questions and 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 and then send us the details of how you’ve driven, we can model that through our data and say actually for your driving the most suitable vehicle is X.
Will: Right. Is that a service that you do offer?
Nick: We do a service like that in America where if you go on the motortrend.com website, you can choose your car and then you can tailor it by telling us about your road mix and driving style and congestion levels. It’ll take the headline MPG number and it will give you your personalized MPG, it’s called
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 and 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 and CO2 but that will be largely a function of the weight of the vehicle.
Will: Yeah, that makes sense. So, what got you into this? How did you become, from being an economist into understanding the emissions of vehicles?
Nick: Well, I think actually the lineages is quite close in that it is a market failure and 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 and it was a question which kept getting raised by associates and 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 and told there’s nothing wrong with it and they’d still be getting 45.
So, I smelled an issue there and I tried to find data in the public domain but found very little and so the only way to really bottom this out is to go and 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 and 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
Will: So, when did you start doing what you’re doing?
Nick: So, we started our first test in the summer of 2011.
Will: Ok, so you’ve been going for a while now.
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 and we built possibly, I think it is the largest commercially available database worldwide of real-world missions.
Will: And you are largely in the US or are you half-and-half US, EU?
Nick: In terms of our activity, I would say it’s roughly a third
Will: How do you get your funding?
Nick: Well, it is entirely privately funded by private shareholders and we put all the data we gather into a database and people can pay to subscribe. So, if you want to know the detail behind our public ratings, you subscribe and pay money for that, you can also commission us to do testing. So, those two revenue streams are what fund the equity program.
Will: So, who would you say tends to buy your data? What sort of companies?
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 and 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 and 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.
Will: Yes, they are, by the sounds of it. keep [35:25 inaudible].
Nick: Well, there’s a massive difference between the best and 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.
Will: Personally, that doesn’t surprise me.
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 and 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.
Will: And all superseding.
Nick: There’s a lot of money riding on it and so we provide data which allows people to refine their investment decisions.
Will: Are you finding that the environment and 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 and 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 and 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 and have a look at it and 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 and 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 and 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, and you should not trust it and you need to find out the real worlds. Go to our site and then you can get the real-world NOx, Co and fuel economy and CO2.
Will: I wonder if Brexit happens or when Brexit happens [39:39 inaudible] whatever, the legislation will change because we won’t be governed by EU. We will not be governed by the Euro.
Nick: Well, I think the answer is yes and no. We will not suddenly create our own certification system and 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 and just make sure everyone’s behaving themselves. Now, the European regulations set down a requirement for surveillance.
If we’re outside of that, even if the cars are type approved, the compliance school type approved, type approved the European system, we could take a different approach to surveillance. That might mean we do more surveillance or less surveillance, we might have a whole different framework of fines for people who are found cheating. That’s where the divergence may well come, but we’re not going to diverge from the original certification, that would be madness.
Will: Brilliant. well, Nick, thank you so much for your time today. It was brilliant learning more about what cars to buy and the whole thing about emissions and how it’s not black and white.
Nick: Every individual can make a material difference if they buy well and that’s a good thing, so people are not powerless. With this information, you can then make a better decision and make a genuine impact on the environment, so I think that’s something that everyone can go away and 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 and it’s three years after
Will: Keep up the good work, thank you so much for doing everything you’re doing, thank you.
Nick: Thank you.
Will: Alright, cheers, Nick.
Nick: Ok, thanks Will, good to meet you.
Will: You too.
Nick founded Emissions Analytics in 2011 in order to understand real-world fuel economy and emissions from vehicles. The concept was to find a way to
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