The EU is investigating BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler over allegations they may have colluded to thwart the development of clean-emission technology for cars.
The probe relates to claims the car giants may have agreed not to compete against each other on the development and roll-out of technology aimed at reducing harmful emissions from petrol and diesel cars, in a breach of EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices.
If the commission finds evidence of deliberate wrongdoing it has the power to levy fines that could run up to the millions, if not billions. The commission has already issues fines for suspected of cartel behaviour, including car seats, parking heaters in cars and trucks and engine cooling systems.
Competition head Margrethe Vestager said: "These technologies aim at making passenger cars less damaging to the environment. If proven, this collusion may have denied consumers the opportunity to buy less polluting cars, despite the technology being available to the manufacturers."
The probe centres around the circle fo five met to discuss limiting the roll-out of emissions systems sold in the European Economic Area (EEA), including selective catalytic reduction systems to reduce harmful nitrogen oxides emissions from passenger cars with diesel engines and 'Otto' particulate filters to reduce harmful particulate matter emissions from passenger cars with petrol engines.
The Commission said it has received no indications the companies coordinated with each other in relation to the use of illegal defeat devices to cheat regulatory testing – a reference to the emissions scandal that gripped the industry.
A spokesperson for BMW said: "On 18 September, the European Commission opened a formal proceeding in the context of antitrust allegations against five German auto manufacturers. This is a formal step which does not prejudge the outcome in regard to a possible violation of antitrust rules. From the start of the investigation, the BMW Group has supported the EU Commission in its work and will continue to do so. Due to the ongoing investigation, the BMW group will not comment on the case.
"For the BMW group, it is important to make a clear distinction between possible violations of antitrust law and a targeted manipulation of exhaust gas treatment, as the latter allegation does not relate to the BMW group. As for possible infringements against antitrust law, the BMW group is examining the allegations very closely. The company is wholeheartedly committed to the principles of market economics and fair competition.
A spokesperson for VW said it was "fully co-operating" with the commission but that it could not comment further.
A spokesperson for Daimler said it was cooperating fully with the authorities.