I’m being a little cheeky with the title – however it probably does sum up the current situation quite well. The vultures are circling and fighting over what basically is a non-story with Governments and lawyers drooling over the money they can get and Volkswagen have rightly set aside billions to cover fines and other charges.
Well this started by independent researchers finding that an electronic module fitted to diesel cars since 2008 had a “test” mode that could figure out when the car was being tested and then change the engine management system to reduce the emissions produced. To trigger the changes, the car needed to be connected to a dynamometer and run at certain speeds. Basically the software figured out that if the front and rear wheels were travelling at vastly different speeds and the engine was at a constant speed as well, then the car was being tested for emission control.
Once the US Environment Protection Agency announced the findings on September 18th all hell broke loose. The media clearly were hungry for a “scandal” and attacked hard. In Australia, certain media outlets have had a long history of attacking VW, so this was gold for them. Then came the lawyers and the need for compensation.
It was right for VW to set aside the billions as the US Government has a history of demanding excessive fines from companies who might have done something a little naughty. It was also right for the CEO to resign, he knew that if he didn’t he would be attacked incessantly by the media, damaging an already wounded corporate reputation. The value of the company has dropped which would be expected after an event like this but ….
How Bad is it Really?
I ask this question because no one has been killed or even injured as a result of this control unit. The software did not contribute to accidents and the car delivered the types of fuel economy that buyers wanted in a quality package that was comfortable and safe. Several other Governments have also launched investigations despite their emission policies being different from the US and so could be a waste of time. The control unit only changed its operation when the car was in an official EPA test – how many of their cars would actually be used in this test process? Not many, but people will say that the cars produced too much pollution although they didn’t know that for 7 years!
The test itself is so un-real world that many industry experts have been calling on Governments globally to change the structure of the test – and have been doing so for many years. No car is ever driven the way the test is designed so whatever result the test produces is not what the car will do in real driving conditions. Now, I know that the core of the “scandal” is the way that VW’s engineers figured out how to affect the results, however, if the test itself bears no relation to the conditions that the product will be used in, it is really is a waste of time to complain. It is far better to redesign the test to be more realistic and this would prevent the control unit from ever changing the car’s dynamics. It would be possible to write this into the test – just as software test engineers write their tests to cover all known bugs.
There is talk of criminal charges – who do you charge? The software team, their boss, the whole management chain? The problem will be that a scapegoat is chosen and all the upper management will be free – a lot like the GM issue with their ignition systems.
The Legal Vultures Fly In
As would be expected, the lawyers are salivating at the money they can get. Firstly they suggest that the dealers can sue for loss of sales in the US. There are two problems with this:
- Diesels are not great sellers in the US anyway and most cars sold are therefore petrol powered or petrol hybrids.
- VW had already created a financial assistance package for dealers who had unsold cars on their lots.
To say that the dealers would suffer is a ploy to extract money. If the dealer is smart, the diesels would be put out the back and other cars would be out front ready for sale.
Within 4 days of the EPA announcement, lawyers had launched 25 civil class action suits against the company. The core of the suits is that the company defrauded the public with representations about fuel economy and emissions. One lawyer said he had bought VWs because he believed the marketing that they were “smart, fun to drive and eco-friendly”. I have a problem with these statements (however a judge would see dollars and media exposure and think differently!) Firstly the tests have no bearing on the fuel efficiency of the vehicles in the real world – if an owner had felt that the car was too thirsty they would have traded it for another in the past 7 years. Most buyers of new VW’s aren’t buyers of cheap runabouts, they have done their homework first. Secondly, this issue doesn’t make the car stupid or not as fun to drive, sure the emissions might be different to the test, but the driver didn’t know that and nor did anyone else!
I don’t think many people buying a used diesel VW will even consider the environment at all – remember the US has a reputation for building and selling “gas guzzlers” and diesels have an old history of being “oil burners” despite the advances in technology of the past 20 years. I also would be amazed if anyone tried to sell their car over this – what would they buy? A petrol powered car that might produce more emissions or an electric car that uses coal or nuclear sourced power? Frankly, what ever vehicle you buy will contribute to some emissions being produced, either at the time of driving or at the time of the power generation!
The funny thing is that the lawyers are fighting each other to get to “pole position” for the race to attack VW. It is a sad indictment (to use a legal term) that the modern world is too eager to demand compensation for something that actually didn’t affect or will not affect the usage of a product.
Will the “Scandal” Grow?
BMW has already been attacked for doing the same thing, however none of VW’s other brands have been! What about all the diesel Audi, SEAT and Skoda cars that probably share the same control unit? Will Daimler Benz be attacked or Jaguar or FIAT? Who knows, I suspect that there are a lot of people keeping their heads down under the parrapet!
I’m sure that many media outlets will attempt to attack other manufacturers in the coming months and I think Governments should spend more time getting heavy polluting trucks and other equipment off our roads and keeping their policies and tests up to date.
As you can tell from my post, I don’t see this as such a big issue – and I think the US Government is also responsible for helping create the “scandal” because they were negligent in the design of the test despite being urged to change it by the industry long before this story broke. It is human nature to find ways around rules and it is the responsibility of a Government to recognise this and adjust the rules to prevent this happening. As we saw with the start of the GFC, Governments believe they are squeaky clean and complain about companies who are either following the laws created or finding ways around them. We also know that their members regularly commit fraud or embezzlement of some form and aren’t the saints they think they are.