Readers know I post occasional essays about cars, a habit based on a liking of veteran cars, a few classic ones, and an enjoyable hobby writing for auto magazines. (My avatar is the clue.) No surprise that I focus attention this week on Volkswagen’s massive con trick, another global company that thinks itself above the law.
It Was One Mad Guy and his Granny
The first reaction is déjà vu. The News of the World’s initial defence of an epidemic of phone hacking was, “It’s restricted to a few rogue journalists”, a euphemism for, everybody does it. Barclay’s Bank replied to accusations of Libor manipulation with, “It’s one employee out of control”. Most of the major banks had agreed to get involved.
VW’s response to the latest criminal outrage is, “It’s only a small group of people responsible”. Therefore, experience tells us the one and only conclusion possible is, faking emissions from diesel cars is rampant across the globe wherever VW cars are sold.
That’s bad news for the car owner. VW own and make Audi, SEAT, and Skoda, among a plethora of other companies, including luxury brands such as Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, and the ersatz Bugatti, a million dollar monster with a fireplace for a radiator. Not all use VW’s diesel engine, but the mass market brands all do it.
The Hidden Truth
For years car owners knew their miles per gallon statistics were baloney, calculated in perfect conditions, not every day driving situations in cities with all the stop-start frustration that that involves. Faking emission levels is harder to detect. The scale of the confidence trick, up to eleven million cars, is vast, as will be the consequences. The USA has a legal process called a Class Action, where a group of lawyers bring a gazillion dollar claim against a company on behalf of affected customers, all proceeds won shared among litigants and lawyers.
Love Smart, Hate Smart, Steal Smart
Is VW’s scandal unique? Not by a mile.
Other underhanded manoeuvres are accomplished with better skill. The Smart car was first offered to VW to manufacture. They ‘lifted’ its best design elements, incorporated them in their VW Up, and dumped the Smart. When challenged about the theft of patented innovations, the then autocratic CEO of VW, Ferdinand Piëch, (since ousted) called the Smart, “That elephant shoe of a car”.
How do we categorise VW bribing union officials with hookers and expense accounts, a lapse in judgement for which they apologised a few years back?
The world of big car companies is a paragon of moral rectitude and customer care. Not.
That Cupboard Must Remain locked!
It was not so long ago that the CEO of Mitsubishi was bobbing like a drowning man, bowing in public humiliation when his office cupboard was found to be stuffed with customer complaints, complaints he said did not exist because Mitsubishi build near perfect cars. Then there was the international problem of Toyota cars locking controls at high-speed and crashing. Toyota dismissed this as the carpet matt rolling up under the acceleration pedal. It had nothing to do with a box of wonky electronics.
The car industry has a long history of hiding serious vehicular faults, rampant corruption, and killing its customers. Where avarice and status are involved humans lose all control.
Off Shore Accounts
It was only in 2010 that we heard about Mercedes way of creating new business. German carmaker Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, pleaded guilty to corruption in the US and was forced to fork out $185m (£121m) to settle the case. The charges related to US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into the company’s global sales practices. Daimler, admitted to paying tens of millions of dollars of bribes to foreign government officials in at least 22 countries. The company said it had now reformed the way it did business. Perhaps that means it will find other ways to bribe.
The offences were committed between 1998 and 2008 by Daimler’s German-based exports subsidiary Export and Trade Finance, and its Russian business Mercedes-Benz Russia. They were said to have given money and lavish gifts to help win contracts in countries including China, Russia, Thailand, Greece, and Iraq. (How any car manufacturer avoids corruption in China is a mystery!)
Don’t Mention the War
Let us turn a blind eye to the missing Second World War company records of Mercedes and Porsche, and concentrate instead what some car manufactures are prepared to do in order to achieve docile workers and big profit margins.
A look at the history of the Ford Motor Company ought to stop anybody with a conscience buying a Ford vehicle again. During the military junta that took over Argentina the Ford Motor company ensured its plant there maintained a smooth output. That included naming union representatives to the junta authorities who asked for living wage’s and better conditions. They had to be purged. After placing a full-page advertisement in the national newspaper stating that Ford welcomed the new ‘regime’, the junta arrived at the Ford plant during the night, in Ford trucks lent for the duration, and removed union members who were never seen again. They joined the thousands of ‘The Disappeared.’
Later, four Japanese Nissan executives who had compiled a dossier of events, were assassinated before they could give evidence against the junta about the murderous activities at Ford. The population soon learned to fear the sight and sound of a Ford truck in the night coming down their street. They understood its significance.
How many people were killed and disappeared during the seven years of dictatorship? “It is our estimate that at least several thousand were killed and we doubt that it will ever be possible to construct a more specific figure,” says the U.S. Ambassador in one cable in early 1978. However, the National Commission on the Disappeared documented 9,089 persons disappeared at the hands of the regime. Another U.S. declassified State Department memo, titled “Disappearance Numbers,” places it at 15,000 by late 1978.
A Big Boy Made Me Do It.
Car manufacturers are unable to function as they wish without the tacit approval of governments. History calls into question the knowledge of the German government, and indeed, the UK’s government. Did they know of the diesel hoax?
Documents exist recording Washington’s initial reaction to Argentina’s military takeover. “I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give them a sense that they’re harassed by the United States.” Those are the words of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to his staff after his assistants warned him that the junta would initiate a bloodbath following the coup.
Assistant Secretary William Rogers predicted to Secretary Kissinger that the Argentine military was “going to have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties,” and recommended that “we ought not at this moment rush out and embrace this new regime.” Kissinger, however, ordered U.S. support for the new government. “Whatever chance they have,” Kissinger noted, “they will need a little encouragement from us.” Very soon, The USA and the IMF, (pretty well one and the same thing) were lending millions to the junta, the same one that Thatcher faced when protecting that bastion of Britishness, the Falkland’s Islands.
The Firestone Firewall
Today, Ford is seen as the weather vane of US economic health. If it is making good profits America must be thriving. The history books tell us Henry Ford created the conveyor belt. Try and imagine it moving corpses on their way to the morgue.
Ford relationship with Firestone Tyres almost killed the company, but it did all but wipe out Firestone. After years of wrangling in courts and in the press, Ford admitted that its best-selling vehicle after its pick-up trucks, the Explorer SUV, was an inherently unsafe vehicle. The tyres, after all, were not the culprit for so many SUVs skidding and rolling over on empty freeways in good weather. By that point of admission, scores of Explorer owners had died, families devastated.
Before that we had the problem of exploding petrol (gas) tanks. Crash into a pick-up truck in the rear, known in the UK as a flatbed, and a fire was certain to engulf car and wounded passengers. Incident after incident piled up. Nothing was done to remedy the problem. It transpired the car maker had done its sums. They calculated it was cheaper to pay out on insurance claims rather than call in every unfit pick-up to move the petrol tank. No car executive went to jail.
It Would Never Happen in Britain
Britain has had its own share of iffy cars. It used to be a truism that British car makers left development of a new vehicle to the customer. Vehicles with all sorts of faults were sold to unwary buyers looking to secure the freedom to go where they liked, when they liked. Five miles down the road it stopped, or veered onto the verge. And refused to start again.
Our small companies were almost all specialist sports car makers, the ‘envy’ of the world. One such company was TVR, the acronym short for its founder, Trevor Wilkinson.
It’s last owner before going bust was Peter Wheeler, a clever chemical engineer who decided he could make the Blackpool-based company world-beating. For a time he seemed to achieve that, creating a company the envy of the big boys; wonderfully muscular sports cars half the price of the major manufacturers, with unique controls fashioned from billets of aluminium, and rip-roaring exhausts that cracked windows. One new model, the Tuscan, took orders of 1,500 deposits of £5,000 each at a single car show that got it into the Guinness Book of Records.
But Wheeler had an Achilles heel. His conceit was to eschew safety aids in his cars. He boasted that the only safety needed was “the pedals under the driver’s feet.” He refused to install brake assistance, for example, or suspension aids, with the result the inexperienced young polishing queens who bought the cars as a mark of their manhood had no idea how to drive a lightweight sports car with a massively powerful engines. Soon, incidents mounted of Tuscans ending back-to-front in ditches, or in mangled pieces against a tree, their occupants dead or severely injured.
TVR’s public relations manager issued a press release blaming drivers who fettled their engines to race their cars.
Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no
Examples of car maker’s avarice are legion, but no matter what they do we remain in love with the car, content to overlook the thousands of deaths on our roads each year, not all caused by driver error. We all have stories of sitting behind a diesel car at the traffic lights, often a taxi, that coughs black fumes. Tackle a car lover and he will answer, “The car only needs serviced.” Well, he is wrong. Very wrong. Even after a service the VW car will still emit noxious gasses.
What Should the Diesel Owner Do?
Should the VW diesel owner ask for his money back, having been thoroughly duped?
Ignore the Autocar columnist, one of many car magazines owned by Michael Heseltine, who advises, “Keep on buying diesel VW’s”. Everything is okay, folks.
I’d engage a results-or-no-fee lawyer, (Digby Brown is one such all-Scots company) to secure full compensation, either my money back, or an exchange vehicle safe of pollutants. A diesel car will crash in value. The DVLA is liable to raise your Road Tax because your car is not really green. As VW has admitted liability you have a water-tight case.
A word of caution, Volkswagen has hired the US law firm, Kirkland and Ellis, that defended BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to help it deal with a growing collection of investigations and law suits. Exactly when you might receive compensation is another matter. One important aspect is the extent to which the German government knew about the practice. That could complicate matters.
Nitrogen dioxide levels risk the health of all of us, not only street cleaners, refuse and parking staff. To be frank, what VW has done is unforgivable. They screwed us, the car owner, and the planet. Had it been a small company, such as TVR, the CEO would be arrested and taken to a police station for intense questioning.
So far no one at VW has been arrested.
One drop of humour: the man who shopped VW is called John German, a member of the U.S Council for Clean Transportation.