I’m not a real Volkswagen owner, but I might as well be. I test cars for a living, and every day for the last five months it’s been my pleasure to drive an e-Golf, the new, all-electric version of what has long been one of the world’s best-selling models. My spiffy blue four-door looks almost identical on the outside to its more conventional Golf brethren, which are usually sold with your choice of gasoline or turbo-diesel engines. But it’s those turbo-diesels -- tdi’s in Euro-speak – that are all anyone’s been talking about lately.
Because they use less fuel and emit less CO2 than gasoline ones, beginning around seven years ago, when de-sulfured, so-called “clean” diesel became the law of the land, diesel engines began being marketed in to Americans, who had long resisted their miserly charms, as the greenest thing this side of Greenland.
Which was pretty great and going well until one day last week when we all found out that many diesels weren’t clean or green at all. Volkswagen had knowingly installed bogus onboard software to trick regulators here and around the world into thinking its small diesel engine actually met emissions standards, when it didn’t. Not even close. Incredibly, in fact, when they weren’t in the act of being tested (a rare, less than once in a lifetime occurrence), these compression motors polluted up to 40 times more than was legal. Some quick mental arithmetic reveals that’s the NOx emissions of 11 million “clean” diesels turned into those of 440 million – almost half a billion.
Think about that. How would it feel to eat a meal 40 times larger -- or drink a beer forty times bigger -- than what you’d ordered or what doctors, scientists and government regulators recommended? And to then learn that you’d been unwittingly forced to consume your mega-dose by some wacky, German, PhD-wielding engineer-capitalists who disdained dietary restrictions and had their hearts set on ruling the food and beverage world?
There in a nutshell is the problem us VW drivers have these days. We’ve been had by the people we gave our money to. I’m sorry. Had, except for us e-Golf drivers who are being lent our cars for free, along with high-speed electric charging stations for our garages. People like us, our eco-footprint is as clean as the power company supplying us electricity (meh) and we never buy gas, ever. It bears mentioning that in 5,400 miles, my car has performed flawlessly, requiring nothing more than a single tire inflation. It has been, in many ways, the perfect car for this city-centric surburbanite. So I really love it. Yet I still have to face my own guilt by association. And it doesn’t really matter what I think as there’s the opprobrium of fellow road users and -- here in New York City, there’s plenty of them – literate, opinionated and unusually talkative pedestrians, to keep me certain of where I stand. Sometimes I even agree with these people, many of who are talking to themselves. Even if in my own mind, I’m an important step removed from the shame and angst that is VW’s nightmare, I mean, extreme marketing challenge.
For years, graduate schools of business have studied the 1980s case of the tainted Tylenol capsules and Johnson & Johnson’s lightning response to them, long hailed as a classically well-executed exercise in public relations damage control. It may be too early to say, but one day they will probably be able to launch entire graduate business schools devoted to the studying the mess VW finds itself in. Needless to say, one advantage Johnson & Johnson had is that it was likely sabotaged by a psycho loner from outside the company. (They never found the guy.) We don’t know all their names yet, but it seems apparent VW was laid low by psychos from within… its own employ. Plenty of them, possibly at the company’s highest levels. That’s right, there are not just marketing and communications challenges to study at VW U., but legal, manufacturing, engineering and ethical ones. Especially ethical ones.
That Volkswagen’s regulatory own goal has struck a clangorous chord in today’s news cycle is beyond doubt. Do they deserve all the anger? Probably not, when you compare this crime to the one General Motors just got away with – paying $900 million in fines for a faulty ignition switch it knew had and would lead to violent deaths. I’m going to say that’s worse. VW’s crime is also mitigated by one’s strong suspicion that it will turn out, sooner than later, that many other manufacturers have also epically failed to meet emissions standards. Not all of them will be found to have sought to cover up their treachery as creepily as VW. Rather than trying elaborately to hide that they’ve blown off a regulation, they’ll be discovered simply failing to comply. And, in a self-certifying world, why try harder?
At the end of the day are nonfeasance and misfeasance really any worse than malfeasance? The law often says it is. And, it’s true, the way VW lied to the world shocks the conscience. But after all is said and done, it’s still us VW drivers sitting here mumbling to ourselves the loudest, asking, How could they do such a thing? It’s almost gotten to the point where I’m starting to wonder about my beloved e-Golf. Not just how come these fine, greenish machines haven’t been pushed harder. It’s probably too late now – I recently heard California VW dealers were offering massive ($10K and more) discounts to move unsold e-Golfs. And that was before the scandal broke. Selling any Volkswagens now can’t be easy. If ever there were dealing days down at the VW store these are them, so I might well recommend getting your e-Golf now. But before you do, let me go outside and check that Volkswagen isn't lying again and that my e-Golf really is electric. I haven’t opened the hood or climbed underneath it once, but it would be just like those guys to have a tiny gas engine or compressed air or maybe even an atomic reactor hidden in there somewhere.