LONDON -- Tired of tying up talented engineers and "hundreds of millions" of dollars, General Motors' global powertrain chief sees a one-time opportunity in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal to persuade governments to adopt a single, harmonized agreement on what should be allowed to emerge from a car's tailpipe.
Emissions harmony, finally?
GM exec: VW crisis could be the trigger
Dan Nicholson told Automotive News he plans to use his upcoming presidency of the International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies to knock heads together, especially between two of the biggest and most influential regulatory environments: Europe and the U.S.
VW's admission that it has hoodwinked customers and authorities over emissions from millions of vehicles has infuriated governments and exposed an enforcement weakness in Europe, where regionwide standards are applied haphazardly country by country.
Nicholson, who took over as GM's vice president of global powertrain late last year, said the European Union's desire to prevent this from happening again could be just the trigger needed for change.
"I'm not sure any of the European regulators are happy with the status quo right now," he said, adding: "A very credible enforcement threat with consequences is absolutely critical to making this work."
Commentators have argued that Europe's more loosely policed regime has allowed automakers such as VW more leeway to bend the rules.
The differing sets of rules long have frustrated global automakers, which resent pouring in money and time to ensure similar engines pass different tests, often with very small changes in the resulting emissions.
"We have to put our engineering resources into nuanced regulatory differences rather than working on the root problem," said Nicholson on the sidelines of the federation's summit here last week. He estimated the auto industry collectively spends "hundreds of millions" of dollars annually with a greater cost to manpower.
Nicholson takes over as the federation's president next September from Paul Mascarenas, former Ford Motor Co. chief technical officer.
"Given that engineering resources are finite, some of the most critical resources we have are being wasted," he said. "The opportunity cost is really larger than the actual cost."
Nicholson said the industry is at a "key pivot point" as China decides on the next round of emission targets: "I'm a bit concerned if we miss our opportunities now, they won't come again for a long time."
One precedent has been set. In September, President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping agreed to work together on a harmonized fuel efficiency standard between the two countries for heavy-duty trucks and buses.
Bob Lee, head of powertrain at Fiat Chrysler, says the VW mess presents an opportunity to examine all aspects of emissions regulations -- from testing procedures and standards to fuel quality and evaporative emissions.
"It's the same air in Europe and the U.S. I think we want to do the same thing," he said.
Christopher Grundler, who heads the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told Automotive News in August that setting emissions standards goes beyond agreeing to a set of figures; it goes to the heart of a nation's policymaking.
"I agree with the logic and the premise of having one global emissions standard. But sovereign nations make their own decisions regarding public health," he said. Regions have "different laws, different systems and different regulatory processes. It's kind of like world peace and world hunger. How do you solve that?"
Nicholson conceded it wouldn't be easy but pointed to the global safety framework for autonomous driving as an example of harmonization that has worked. He said: "For sure, it's not simple, but I wouldn't say it was insurmountable."
Richard Truett contributed to this report.