It is not every day you wake up to top news concerning the minutiae of transport, but the story of a small nonprofit taking down the world’s largest automaker was too juicy to ignore. Volkswagen (VW) was caught cheating emissions standards, tricking a mandated test so as to allow its cars to emit an amount of nitrogen dioxide (correlated with negative environmental and a range of deleterious health effects) 10-40 times higher than the legally permissible limit.
On a slow news day this might be a big deal, but given the many stories around the world (the Pope and Chinese President visiting the US, migrant crisis in the Europe, Japan voting on a new constitution, and so on), it was surprising that this is and has been such a big story.
Don’t get me wrong, it should be, it’s just that it is not news per se. This has happened before in an eerily similar episode involving trucks in the 1990s, and the discrepancy between tested values and real-world values has been documented for a long time, so what makes this time around any different? Maybe the numbers alone justify it; the scandal is thought to affect at least 11 million cars and VW is liable for up to 18 billion Euros in fines, so by most measures: it is a big story. And the outrage is warranted, but maybe not only for the reasons people think.
It is not warranted exclusively towards Volkswagen, German auto industry, nor diesel cars; this is warranted against the entire industry. This is about real health and environmental consequences, corruption, and deceit. In the words of French Finance Minister Michael Sapin, “This is not a minor subject, it’s not about speed or the quality of leather. What we are dealing with is making sure people avoid being poisoned by pollution.” In Britain alone, it is estimated 12,000 lives could have been saved had the car industry met emissions targets.
The reasons the VW story is just the tip of the iceberg are, in short:
- There is a long-established history of automakers deceiving emissions tests, including for example GM paying $45 million to settle a case involving illegal devices (sound familiar?) installed in some 470,000 Cadillacs back in 1995, so do not be surprised when this happens again
- Despite the media obsession, this is not limited to diesel vehicles nor cars, it also involves trucks (not to mention a case involving VW and a $4.5 billion price-fixing scandal uncovered just last year)
- This is likely not limited to Germany or the German auto sector, and not VW in particular, with Mercedes, Opel, PSA, and BMW now under suspicion by environmental NGO Transport & Environment
- And finally and perhaps most importantly, this is not limited to emissions limits, it should also include the increasing gap between stated versus real-world fuel economy, something that ensnared Hyundai/Kia in a $300 million fine in 2012
This series will explore why the story is a bigger deal than the misfortunes of one company; explain underlying misconceptions; and finally, discuss what comes next, because this is only the beginning.