By Leigh Thomas and Gilles Guillaume
French carmaker Renault said fraud investigators had inspected three of its sites to look into its vehicle emissions technology, news that wiped billions off its market value in an echo of the scandal engulfing German rival Volkswagen.
Renault said investigations to date had found “no evidence of a defeat device equipping Renault vehicles”, in a reference to a type of software programme Volkswagen was found to have used by US investigators to cheat emissions tests.
Renault shares fell as much as 22 per cent after union officials first said the sites had been searched, prompting the company to issue a statement confirming the inspections.
It said fraud investigators were looking at the way it uses exhaust emissions technology in an additional probe of parts and factories that follows an earlier investigation by the French government.
Volkswagen last year admitted to using software to conceal the level of toxic emissions from some of its diesel vehicles in the United States.
It faces billions of dollars in claims from owners of vehicles with similar software installed around the world.
That has prompted investigations across several countries into Volkswagen, as well as checks on other car manufacturers and a tightening of emissions regulations which some industry analysts think could hit the whole diesel vehicle industry – a key market for Renault
The French company saw some 5 billion euros wiped from its market capitalisation in the worst day since its shares were first listed in 1994, according to Reuters data. The shares pulled back from their losses in heavy trading after the statement to stand down 8.7 per cent at 1425 GMT.
“It’s hard to believe that VW would have been the only one to have rigged emissions testing,” said Clairinvest fund manager Ion-Marc Valahu, adding he had sold out of his shares in European carmakers.
The economy ministry called a meeting on Thursday afternoon about the issue.
A government-mandated independent commission is conducting tests on 100 vehicles made by French carmakers, with 25 from Renault to be checked.
As of the end of December, four Renault vehicles out of a total of 11 had been tested and no signs of defeat technology had so far been discovered, the company said.
Nonetheless, fraud investigators “decided to conduct an additional investigation on parts and sites with the aim of definitively validating the initial analysis by the independent technical commission,” Renault said in its statement.
It added that its corporate headquarters and two technical sites had been targeted by the searches and that employees were fully cooperating.
The share plunge comes at a bad time for the French government’s plans to pare back its Renault stake from 19.7 per cent to 15 per cent under a deal that brought to an end a dispute over control with the company’s Japanese partner Nissan.
After shares of other carmakers began to be impacted by the news, rival French group PSA Peugeot Citroen said its offices had not been searched and that emissions tests had indicated no anomalies.
German carmaker Daimler said diesel engines that Renault supplies for its Mercedes-Benz brand do not contain defeat devices used to cheat on emissions tests.
The French finance ministry declined to comment. No one at the energy ministry was immediately available to comment.
A German environmental group said in November Renault’s popular Espace minivan released toxic diesel emissions 25 times over legal limits in a Swiss study, despite complying with EU tests which it said were carried out at unrealistically low engine temperatures. Renault contested the findings.