By: Jamie Kitman/Automobile Magazine
If one can call a battle with cancer a “personal Vietnam,” as writer and critic Susan Sontag once did, then maybe it is fair to term the lyin’-cheatin’-pollutin’ scandal that Volkswagen brought upon its house its personal nuclear holocaust.
I mean, kaboom: VW’s loud proclamation that its new line of turbodiesel engines could be poster children for a magical new era of clean diesel and environmental friendliness—when they were neither—was bad, a page out of George Orwell. But then actually contriving through the use of secret computer code to trick government regulators into thinking for years VW diesels were squeaky clean when they weren’t even close, well, that was something special. In the fickle world of 21st-century media outrage, the outlandish scheme quickly outstripped things like Tom Brady’s footballs and Donald Trump’s hair as fodder to spin into something truly extra horrible. VW won’t find it easy to rebuild its scorched reputation.
With a hundred-plus-year catalog of other automakers’ treacheries and miscues preceding it—encompassing the legal shortcomings nonfeasance, misfeasance, and malfeasance in all of their colorful varieties—it is indeed Germany’s No. 1 automaker’s rum luck in 2015 for its dastardly deeds to stand out. They shouldn’t really, and yet they do. Volkswagen is remarkable today not just for Olympic-grade brazenness but also for the way it has captured the public’s attention, when so little does.
Only recently, General Motors was caught covering up a serious defect in its ignition switches that cost dozens of lives. It paid a piffling $900 million fine, no one went to jail, and barely anyone talks about it anymore. Not long before, Toyota was penalized for failing to share information with regulators regarding runaway cars. The government fined Toyota $1.2 billion, and various recalls, civil suits, and consumer settlements will add billions more to the Japanese behemoth’s tab. And yet general public sentiment is again a resounding Zzzz.
So that’s some bad timing—or perhaps bad karma—for VW, which had only just achieved its long-held dream of becoming the world’s largest automaker. It got its wish, one that didn’t last long. Welcome to 2015, where the automotive world’s Big Three are all now a proven bunch of infracting reprobates.
Meanwhile, back in the realm of absolute truth, Volkswagen’s bad acts, while unmistakably evil, are hardly the most horrible ever perpetrated. Even assuming the worst-case scenario—11 million corrupt TDI engines spew unconscionable amounts of asthma- and emphysema-inducing NOx into the environment for years, with certain deaths to result—the sad truth is, much worse has gone on before. In fact, it’s going on every day.
Once you get past the power-plant emissions and untested chemicals we’re steeped in daily without knowledge or consent, there are trucks, heavy equipment, steamships, jet engines, lawn mowers, and small and stationary engines, tens of millions of them, all smoking away out there, inadequately controlled or controlled not at all. A series of ill-advised regulatory carve-outs have long since been baked into our system on the shaky theory that business (and the military) should not be saddled with environmental control costs.
Still, VW broke the law here and in many other countries, and it’s hard to guess what it was thinking, getting its diesels to lie. There must have been a day when the company realized that in its race to the top, it couldn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t comply with the law. No combination of which, to state the obvious, is a good reason for what it did. It is, however, the measure of VW’s twisted brilliance and deep engineering bent that it bothered to elaborately game the system rather than just fail to meet the standard straight up, as more practical creeps might have done.
No discussion of Volkswagen is complete without reference to the controlling Piëch family and cold-blooded patriarch Ferdinand, who puts control back in the word “controlling.” Who knows what evil genius role this unstoppable senior engineer may have played? Surely, there’s an interior story of fear, wonder, and backstabbing intrigue. But wherever the buck stops, let’s face it: When we weren’t looking, some powerful someones in Wolfsburg went insane in the membrane.
“ONE TOP OF ALL VOLKSWAGEN’S MORAL LAPSES, ITS BIGGEST MISTAKE MAY HAVE BEEN LYING TO THE WRONG PEOPLE”
In months and years to come, there will be acres of headlines that won’t really have to do with VW. The world’s regulatory scheme for emissions control, with thrifty reliance on manufacturers’ computer simulations and self-certifications, is in the process of being revealed as a noncomplier’s dream, with a worrisome tendency to errors that wind up in manufacturers’ favor. I have no trouble predicting makers other than VW will be implicated in scandals to come.
None may seem so egregious. For on top of all Volkswagen’s moral lapses, its biggest mistake may have been lying to the wrong people. Not just the planet’s governments but the people who bought its whole, clean diesel spiel: major torque, seriously good gas mileage, and slightly more expense, with significantly reduced greenhouse emissions and low levels of particulate matter. It sounded so good, I must’ve sold VW TDIs to 20 friends myself.
These were the types of people you’d want as customers, the upscale, the educated, the hip and concerned early adopters and thinking enthusiasts. These are the people who take global warming as seriously as scientists say we ought to. They’re exactly who you’d want as satisfied customers for your green car.
Unfortunately for VW, save angry gang members, they’re also exactly the type of customer you’d least like to piss off. They are loud, and their media voice is outsized. Imagine the parking lot at your local NPR station. Plenty of VW turbo-diesels, guaranteed. These are the people who’ll worry the most about the extra pollutants they were tricked into emitting. These are the people who most want others to think them green. Their minds are exploding today, and too bad for VW they’re verbose communicators and a pretty litigious bunch. Come to think of it, maybe violating gang members’ trust would’ve been better.
Still, let us not confuse the depth of the antipathy and hurt or the enormous losses facing VW with its death warrant. But it will recover: As Germany’s largest employer and automaker, it is, quite simply, too big to fail; if needed, the German government will step in. You can stake your last souvenir pfennig on it.
Volkswagen has weathered worse. The brainchild of Hitler, its creation story offered the company less to boast about than just about any car company ever, and most of us got over that. So the apparent defeat of clean diesel needn’t mark VW’s devastation. But for now, it looks like its campaign for world domination is on hold.