Our car guy examines the coming fallout from the Volkswagen scandal
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been benefiting from Dieselgate for years. When the modern TDi engine was introduced, VW took a loss on each one they sold—that was a $7,000 engine. But to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, especially the new 2012-2016 rules, diesels made sense, as their mileage went into the same pool as gas engines.
In the US, however, there’s a loophole called “self-certification.” As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says, “It is the responsibility of a manufacturer of vehicles and/or items of motor vehicle equipment to certify that each motor vehicle and/or equipment item is in full compliance...The NHTSA does not issue approval tags, stickers or labels for vehicles or equipment items before or after the first sale. In order to provide certification, the manufacturer takes whatever actions it deems appropriate…”
Here are the rules—which you helped to develop—and we expect you to follow them, including those in FVMSS 590, Motor Vehicle Emission Inspections. As an endless series of increasingly horrifying recalls (GM killed at least 104 people with faulty ignition switches) has shown, it hasn’t ended up being a foolproof process.
This is exactly how Dieselgate happened. There were two immutable facts: CAFE (and other standards around the world) had to be met; there was only so much you could ask if the TDi; and those were not compatible. The most appealing answer became to change to process of getting from one to another and it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for those meddling researchers in West Virginia. Actually, it began with meddling researchers in Europe who came here to see why American Jettas and Passats were so much cleaner.
The six years since the infamous software was first used have also seen diesel sales increase about 300 percent, and TDi Clean Diesel sales were up over 20 percent for 2014. We all know the kind of jobs that’s created, and the enormous investment VW has made in Chattanooga.
Even though I consider myself an environmentalist, I haven’t been able to get too worked up about the pollution aspect of the problem. It’s bad for us, sure, but I’m not sure how much it bothers the average white oak. What really, really bothers me is what happens now.
We know the engines can’t be “fixed.” They can be dirty and fast, or slow and clean, because “getting our corporate offices raided” wasn’t going to be anyone’s first choice. Unlike GM, which sold just under 3,000,000 vehicles here last year and barely registered a blip in sales after the recall, VW moved about 367,000 cars.
The 11 million diesels to be recalled globally are more than VW produced globally last year, so for a carmaker with a small American market share (Subaru had 140 percent better sales last year), this is an enormous blow.
Last January, Martin Winterkorn promised a $7 billion investment in American production over the next five—now four—years. Well, Winterkorn just resigned. Everything is going to be on hold. Germany will start criminal proceedings if the recall doesn’t complete on time, and it won’t.
I’m sure there’s a class-action suit pending somewhere and it’s not going to be a small payout. All that on top of what will be a huge, make-an-example-of-them PEA penalty in the multiple billions.
This year’s sales are already down and continue to decline, and they’re going to take people’s lives with them. I don’t mean the 30 or so executives, mostly in Germany, who are going to be implicated. I mean in communities not just here, but all over the world, where VWs are produced.
Yeah, you bought a car, you got screwed on emissions. Does that hurt you, personally, in any way other than your sense of pride? Did it start a fire and burn your family to death? It did not.
As far as driving then around goes,the cars are fine. Those who pay the price will be VW employees, when promises get broken and layoffs begin. Their suffering hurts not just their families, but the local coffee shop, their town’s tax revenue, ultimately all of us. The hell with the environmental damage. This is the real cost.
I’m sure some people will pay, literally with money, for the white-collar crimes. But none of them will ever pay for their crimes against the people who actually make their cars.
David Traver Adolphus is a freelance automotive researcher who recently quit his full time job writing about old cars to pursue his lifelong dream of writing about old AND new cars. He welcomes the inevitable and probably richly deserved kvetching about Airbag and anything else on Twitter as @proscriptus.