For my occasional essays on the car industry I freely admit I veer from excessive adoration of good design – cars are not art though there’s art in their design – to outright condemnation of what cars and their makers have done to society, now and then.
It’s an unhealthy state of affairs, a bit like being very friendly with a Tory MP whilst detesting everything he stands for.
The relationship is one of love and hate. I dare not think of the money I’ve poured into car ownership over the years because it will remind me of how wealthy I might have been if I’d any sense at all and stuck to bus and rail travel. What can I say? We all have expensive pastimes.
So, what’s been happening while we’ve been obsessed with elections and referenda?
What’s the point of banning smoking in cars when so many models suffer from spontaneous combustion?
This week saw Vauxhall getting into a spot of bother when one of their models attracted a lot of publicity by catching fire, a Zafira, a kind of people carrier. You see them around town a lot, up to seven seats, and only the driver’s occupied. (Why not go the whole hog and drive a small bus?)
The car maker is sending letters to 220,000 drivers who could be at risk.
Owners of Zafira B models built between 2005 and 2014 are to be told to get in touch with local dealers where they will be offered free inspections and repairs. It comes after shocking reports of more than 130 cars “erupting into terrifying fireballs.” That’s how the press put it. Unless after the insurance, your car in flames isn’t exactly a warming sight.
The most significant aspect of this incident is the fact that Vauxhall has known about the possible faulty heater problem but kept quiet. This is classic manufacturing behaviour: don’t publicise the problem to save lives, call in the vehicles for a ‘manufacturer’s check’, and hope most drivers will hear of the recall. The car maker’s doctrine is, cheaper to pay out on individual cases, than redesign a car while it’s in production.
The additional problem for Vauxhall is it isn’t only Zafiras that are prone to instant destruction. The popular Corsa is another victim to self immolation, as is the Vivaro van.
We probably would never hear a thing about these conflagrations were it not for internet social sites. It’s in those chat places that the instances are accumulated. You’ll hardly see a mention in the plethora of British right-wing car magazines, mostly owned by Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket Publications. It’s all “look at this stunning new supercar” free commercials in those rags.
But hey, no problem. General Motors has sold off Vauxhall to Johnny Foreigner. Do you think Vauxhall knew something our European friends didn’t? Just asking.
News managed to give a mention to diesel fumes addling the brains of children. It makes a change from sugar-laden breakfast cereals, and Internet porn.
The fumes can cause inflammation of the airways – yer nose and throat – and worsen breathing for anyone. NOx emissions can also react with other compounds to cause more serious respiratory conditions and aggravate heart problems. Long-term exposure to the pollution hastens death: research this year linked high levels of NOx to 9,500 premature deaths “annually in London alone“.
I put those last four words in inverted commas because that’s always how the press and car magazines report car problems. The comparison is always with London. The media remains metro-centric.
VW makes its employees pay
Volkswagen recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges in a brazen scheme to get around US pollution rules on nearly 600,000 diesel vehicles by using software to suppress emissions of nitrogen oxide during tests. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The German automaker has already agreed to pay $4.3bn in civil and criminal penalties – the largest ever levied by the US government against an automaker –although VW’s total cost of the scandal is estimated at about $21bn, including a pledge to repair or buy back vehicles – but not those affected in the UK. We don’t have such a powerful anti-corporate lobby.
As recently as February, the company’s executives insisted they had “misled nobody” in testimony before the British House of Commons’ transport select committee. Well, that’s how a global company sums up a calculated offense. It’s a “momentary lapse of judgement.”
Taken to its logical conclusion, you could describe most disasters as momentary lapses of judgement: the invasion of Iraq, the elevation of Paul Hollywood as an actual chef, and Theresa May as Prime Minister.
Although the cost is staggering and would bankrupt many companies, VW has the money, with $33bn in cash on hand. Volkswagen previously reached a $15bn civil settlement with US environmental authorities and car owners.
But guess what?
In order to balance the books VW is laying off workers. Employees are the Chosen Ones, made redundant to pay for fines. And the conglomerates that own magazines? They’ve already begun to blame our emission tests, and wheel out apologists to tell us crooked car makers are really not to blame for what they sell us.
Global corporations, don’tcha just love ’em.