What was supposed to keep our cars cool has become a hot debate in the automotive industry, as the case of Dupont and Honeywell’s new refrigerant R-1234yf still hangs in the balance. Basically, due to daft regulations elsewhere, you could see the a/c in your next new car to be weaker than ones in older cars.
The two chemical companies have spent years and millions of dollars developing R-1234yf to replace the current R-134a. The new refrigerant has shown results that are reportedly 99.7% kinder to the environment than the current one. Part of that development has been years of testing by government agencies, outside safety agencies and automakers to approve the chemical for use in cars. It passed the protocols necessary for the European Union to declare that new and significantly-revised cars from 2013 onward need to use R-1234yf, and mandated that every car as of 2017 must use it.
Enter Daimler AG, makers of Mercedes-Benz. The automaker simulated a head-on collision test with a B-Class at their Sindelfingen test track that led to the pressurised refrigerant being sprayed on the engine. The result in 20 of the 20 tests showed that the new R-1234yf refrigerant burst into flames as soon as it hit the hot engine, while Daimler concludes that the old R-134a does not catch fire in the same test. Another unexpected result of the R-1234yf test was the release of hydrogen fluoride, a chemical far more deadly to humans than hydrogen cyanide, emitted in such amounts that it turned the windshield white as it began to eat into the glass.
Hence, Daimler said it wouldn’t use the refrigerants in their vehicles, and they subsequently recalled all the cars it had already shipped with new R-1234yf fluid.
However, Honeywell and Dupont pointed to their years of successful tests, and accused Daimler of deliberately staging its test so that the car would catch fire. They also said that various fluids in an engine would catch fire if sprayed on the engine in a certain way, suggesting among other things that Daimler didn’t want to pay the higher cost of the R-1234yf coolant.
At least two other German and Austrian testing agencies have cautioned against the new chemical, and a German fire-fighter organisation has lobbied to have it banned.
A report in Bloomberg stated that Volkswagen too had joined Daimler in refusing to use R-1234yf in its cars. There aren’t any 2013 VW models that fall under the EU mandate for use this year, so the fact that VW is speaking up means it wishes to lodge a vocal protest.
Other automakers are still committed to the new chemical; General Motors models from Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC are due to switch over in 2013, and Toyota in the EU has gone on record saying it hasn’t found any safety issue with R-1234yf. The EU says it will enforce its decree, but no penalties have been mentioned for any automaker defying the order.