Brussels has launched an anti-trust investigation into whether BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche, known as the “circle of five”, colluded to limit the development of clean emission technology.
The German car manufacturers are suspected of agreeing not to compete against each other in the roll-out of anti-pollution systems for petrol and diesel passenger cars.
“These technologies aim at making passenger cars less damaging to the environment,” the European competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said in a statement. “If proven, this collusion may have denied consumers the opportunity to buy less-polluting cars, despite the technology being available to the manufacturers.”
If found guilty the manufacturers could face multibillion-pound fines for anti-competitive behaviour. An anti-trust judgment can result in sanctions of up to 10% of global revenues on a product.
The launch of the European commission’s formal investigation follows a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel in July last year, which claimed the car companies had held secret meetings since the 1990s to collude on technology.
Authorities raided the offices of BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Audi in Germany in October.
The commission’s announcement comes three years to the day since the revelation that Volkswagen installed software in millions of its diesel vehicles around the world to cheat emissions tests.
The technology at the centre of the investigation relates to selective catalytic reduction systems, which can reduce harmful nitrogen oxide emissions from passenger cars with diesel engines, and “Otto” particulate filters, which reduce harmful emissions from passenger cars with petrol engines.
The commission said it had evidence of discussions among carmakers relating to the development of their models, although the current investigation is restricted to looking into attempts to limit competition in clean emission technology.
In their meetings, the companies discussed common quality requirements for car parts and common quality testing procedures.
They also had discussions on the maximum speed at which the roofs of convertible cars can open or close, and at which speed the cruise control would work.
Cooperation was said to have also included crash tests and crash test dummies, where the carmakers pooled expertise to improve testing procedures for car safety.
Daimler told AFP the company had put itself forward as whistleblower in the case, a special status that if accepted would allow for leniency.
BMW vowed that “its full commitment to the principles of free market and fair competition”, saying the group is itself investigating the charges.
The VW group, which owns Audi and Porsche, said the opening of the investigation was only a “procedural step”.
Greg Archer, a spokesman for the European environmental lobby group, Transport & Environment, said: “On the third anniversary of Dieselgate, this new investigation into collusion between German carmakers … is a timely reminder that German car industry puts profits above people and the law.”