For You, Volkswagen, Ze PR Battle Iz Not Yet Over

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

In the popular US advertisements for Volkswagen’s much ballyhooed “clean diesel” vehicles, comedy trio The Golden Sisters extol the virtues of VW’s automobiles. After learning about Volkswagen’s diesel deceit, I’m left imagining a more realistic commercial in which the sisters are left coughing up a lung after being exposed to noxious emissions up to 40 times higher than legally permitted limits.

The Volkwagen scandal erupted in the United States, which has not embraced diesel the way the United Kingdom and Europe has. Your typical “clean diesel” American is a socks-and-sandals liberal who feels smug for driving a high-mileage vehicle and is self-satisfied with not being one of the mass of punters ferrying around their family in a Honda sedan. In practice, they are afflicted with perpetually panic-stricken faces because they never know when they’ll find another petrol station that sells diesel fuel. In that sense they’re a bit like special snowflake Prius owners, just with even fewer cojones.

I won’t lie. As problems mount for VW and, perhaps, other companies in the field of not-so-clean diesel, we will experience not the Fahrvergnügen that Volkswagen might wish, but rather a healthy dose of schadenfreude.

The problems for VW are going to get much worse before they get better. Volkswagen has announced a recall of 8.5 million vehicles in Europe. Initially, VW fans were hopeful that the emissions test chicanery was limited to the United States, but this recall seems to be an admission that the problem is global.

Volkswagen’s woes just grew exponentially due to the widespread usage of diesel in both the United Kingdom and continental Europe. They are already facing large fines in the US and potential criminal charges. They’ve also had to dump their CEO.

Recent news is even more grim. It’s sort of like an earthquake happening during the middle of a hurricane. In the United States, VW has halted sales of even more vehicles as we learn the extent of the problem through “trickle truth.” According to the BBC, Volkswagen now admits that at least 800,000 vehicles in Europe have “irregularities” in their carbon dioxide levels. This problem extends beyond the diesel fleet to petrol vehicles as well. You know you are headed for the corporate junkyard when Forbes dubs your scandal “dieselgate“.

Volkswagen’s biggest mistake was naming their emissions test trick the “defeat device”. It is a lesson for all of us: you aren’t a James Bond villain, so give your evil secrets innocuous names like “Environment Cleaner” or “Hugbox.” Defeat device is a dead giveaway and betrays a lack of imagination that is uniquely Germanic in character. It’s not even a good name: we aren’t even talking about a piece of hardware here, just a software routine in the engine computer. Idiots.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even an automotive engineer to figure out why Volkswagen cheated on their emission tests. VW knew they couldn’t produce a diesel-powered car that both met emission standards and had the performance demanded by consumers. They thought they could get away with it because they were fooling the government, not any sort of organisation that would actually care enough to do its job.

In fact, the same trick was pulled by several heavy-equipment manufacturers in 1998. You’d think the government would be better equipped to spot this scam after it was already tried once.

Emissions standards do have benefits. Just compare Beijing’s usual smog with a special two-week restriction on cars (VW recalled vehicles in China as well) to see the difference in air quality. This scandal stands as another example of how the government is often too inept to properly complete a worthwhile task. Compare the problems in emission testing with the rigorous standards of private organisations like Underwriter’s Laboratory. Maybe it’s time for emissions testing to be privatised.

The real losers will be the people who are driving their Volkswagen diesels around today. Volkswagen will probably change the computer settings in existing vehicles to follow emission standards, since it will be the cheapest fix, but that will cut down on the fuel efficiency and engine performance of those cars, certainly lessening the enjoyment of the vehicle for current customers and lowering resale value.

Some commentators have speculated that Volkswagen will instead install a costly hardware solution called a urea tank. I am in favour of this system, which runs emissions through urea, one of the primary ingredients in human liquid waste. In other words, let’s take the piss out of snooty US diesel drivers by having their car boot half filled with a big bottle of urine.

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