The VW Betrayal: Car Talk Interviews Dan Neil

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Sep 22, 2015

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've likely seen the recent news that VW used software designed to cheat emissions tests on 11 million diesel cars worldwide.

One of our favorite automotive journalists, and favorite writers, Dan Neil from the WSJ, gives us his thoughts so far on the VW betrayal.

Car Talk: It seems like people are taking this harder than other cases of car-makers behaving unethically. Why do you think that is?

Dan Neil: They have every reason to be upset. The level of betrayal here is like something out of a romance novel. There are so many people involved here—11 million worldwide. They all thought they were doing the green thing, buying a car with good mileage, but it turns out they might as well be rolling coal in a Ford Pickup Truck.

And it's such a brazen F.U. Of all the emissions standards, NOx is the worst one to cheat.

Car Talk: A couple of members of our staff are unlucky TDI owners. What can they expect to happen next?

Dan Neil: Class action lawsuits are likely. VW should just buy back all the cars. There's really no way forward for a lot of these cars.

It's not economical to retrofit the urea injection system to bring the NOx levels into compliance. A software fix by itself would bring the levels into compliance but at the cost of a 20-25% loss of engine power. The performance would suffer in a way that the buyers didn’t sign up for.

Car Talk: Why do you think this happened?

Dan Neil: It seems clear they cheated to continue their campaign of promoting clean diesel. They had a goal to sell 10 million vehicles in the US market, and clean diesel was a part of that strategy. The sheer mendacity of this is going continue to sink in. That's the sleaziest part--to promote “clean diesel” that you know it isn't clean.

Car Talk: What's an appropriate punishment for VW here? And can they come back from this?

Dan Neil: This is a huge company and they're not going to disappear, but when this is over we'll be dealing with a wholly different Volkswagen. If they're found to have violated global standards, in Europe, South America, China, we could see criminal as well as civil penalties. I expect they will abandon clean diesel.

Car Talk: What does this mean for clean diesel going forward?

Dan Neil: In terms of standards, this is a rearguard action. The math just isn't there for diesel to continue to have much foothold in small passenger cars. Europe is moving towards a plug-in electric and hybrids.

Car Talk: Think VW is the only company to have this idea?

Dan Neil: Hell no! I expect manufacturers are taking a long hard look at their software right about now. And the EPA will step up its game as well and strengthen its certification regime.

Self-testing is the original sin here though. When we ask manufacturers to provide this kind of data, we rely on them to provide accurate information. That's another reason automotive journalists are so angry right now. We're not in a position to fact check the highly technical claims so we rely on our subjects to be honest. That trust has been shaken.

Car Talk: We're all feeling pretty fortunate not to be running VW right now. Thanks for talking to us!

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