DIE ZEIT: Carmakers caught between two evils

By R744.com team, Jan 20, 2011, 15:28 3 minute reading

With the MAC Directive’s entry into force on 1 January 2011, automakers could either not comply and continue using high global warming R134a, or use HFC-1234yf. While German media and federal agencies are not getting any quieter on the potentially deadly risks of the second, no single OEM will run the 1234yf risk in 2011, a global survey has found. Non-compliance, CO2, propane or a new substance – what will it be?

No single carmaker is going to market a vehicle using HFC-1234yf in the mobile air conditioning system in 2011. This is the result of a global survey by green group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) among 35 automobile manufacturers. According to DUH and the German Federal Environment Agency UBA neither in Germany nor outside the EU will new models use the flammable and toxic refrigerant, Germany’s leading weekly DIE ZEIT reports in its online edition. Instead, the automotive industry now seems to play a wait-and-see game based on vague descriptions of new models to bypass the so-called MAC Directive that came into force on 1 January 2011. Directive 2006/40/EC prescribes that no refrigerant with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of more than 150 will be allowed for new models put on the EU market. Thousands of homologation processes for new models were finalised in Germany before 31 December 2010 to avoid compliance with the MAC Directive at least this year, the UBA confirms.

Automakers “panic” about which next step to take

Beyond 2011 the most likely “choice” of carmakers seems to be a silent non-compliance with the EU Directive by re-filling MAC systems with R134a - having a GWP of 1420. All this to win time until 2017 when the MAC Directive bans refrigerants with a GWP of above 150 from all models. Towards media the German automobile manufacturers association VDA is not willing to comment on its strategy to violate the EU law. Insiders, however, notice “panic” spreading among carmakers worldwide. If and what consequences a non-compliance will have for OEMs selling their passenger cars in the European Union, remains to be seen over the coming months when the European Commission will be tasked to ensure a proper enforcement of the EU law.

OEMs indeed now seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as DIE ZEIT reports. Given the potentially deadly risks associated with HFC-1234yf – a substance pushed through by chemical makers Honeywell and DuPont – automakers fear a strong consumers’ reaction. While new evidence piles up to suggest that 1234yf is putting unacceptable risks to drivers and rescue personnel when leaking even under normal driving conditions, Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing BAM confirms that it is possible that the concentration of released hydrogen fluoride will be “significantly above the deadly dose” in case of a fire. Taking also into account that the first facility to serially produce HFC-1234yf will only be ready in late 2011 and that refrigerant costs and system modifications to keep the refrigerant far away from hot motor plates will push up the prices even further, it does not come as a surprise that OEMs have put on the breaks in their open support for 1234yf.

What alternatives are left?

DIE ZEIT quotes industry sources that CO2 still remains a viable alternative for MAC systems, also and especially in electric vehicles. After orders for millions of R744 units had been cancelled by the German automotive industry in 2009 to back down to pressure by the chemical industry, it remains to be seen if blueprints for CO2 systems will once again be removed from the drawers anytime soon. In the meantime, China might be warming up to the idea of using propane in MAC systems, as Michael Kauffeld from the Technical University Karlsruhe reports from a recent international congress in Hangzhou. The next International Automobile exhibition IAA is also likely to see the presentation of a new chemical replacement option.

Whatever it will be, valuable time will have been lost at the expense of consumers and the environment. 

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By R744.com team (@r744)

Jan 20, 2011, 15:28




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