Defeated: Why Germany's Dieselgate is not just about emissions

EDITOR'S NOTE

It's a matter of trust

There was a time when being German was synonymous with being the best.

We know they have a certain discipline that strives for perfection and the utmost in quality. We know them as sticklers for rules and procedures, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” with absolute precision. They'd do it twice if they could. But mostly, we know them as having the greatest inventors and engineers in the world, bar none.

Without German engineers Karl Benz or Siegfried Marcus the motor car may never have been invented. Without Werner von Braun's expertise in rocket engineering, Neil Armstrong wouldn't have been able to walk on the moon. Heck, if we didn't have German chemist Felix Hoffman, we wouldn't have the magic of aspirin.

But the armor that protects that belief in Germanic engineering superiority, one that was built upon by over a century of innovation, is starting to crumble. The reason: Dieselgate.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of appending “-gate” to any scandal, but that's pretty much what happened. Volkswagen, one of the world's largest automakers, was caught with a dirty secret. Literally.

More developed automotive markets around the world have been implementing something called Euro 6; a European air pollution emissions standard that defines the maximum allowable values from the tailpipe of your car such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC/THC), particulate matter (PM) and more. Brand new vehicles sold in the market have to be able to meet these standards in order to be allowed for sale to the general public.

Gasoline engines are more easily calibrated to meet their stringent requirements since petrol burns more completely (thanks to a spark plug), but diesel is a different matter. It requires lots of pressure (not a sparkplug) to combust which is fine if you're driving at speed, but at idle (i.e. traffic) diesels have a tendency to not be able to burn up fully. The incomplete combustion is the problem; that's the one that causes black smoke, soot, and all the other harmful stuff to come out of a diesel car's tailpipe.

Some car manufacturers have a variety of solutions to treat the emissions of diesels to meet these extremely difficult standards. Some use diesel particulate filters (DPF) to effectively trap the bad stuff; this is used by manufacturers like Peugeot and Isuzu. Some use urea in the exhaust. Yes, urea is the smelly stuff in your pee, though their version is more of a specific formulation but the smell is the same. If you're behind some diesel models of Mercedes or BMW, you'll know.

Volkswagen's solution, however, is more clever in its engineering but contemptuous in its intent. They created a defeat device (software, really) or a digital demon within the computer system of their TDI diesel models that can detect (via a specific set of motions) when the car is being tested on a dynamometer, and adjust the emissions to meet the standard. In real-world driving, the air pollution being generated is far more than what the standards allow.

In short, they cheated. And it was deliberate.

The situation with Dieselgate is different from any other product recall for defects. Finding defective components is common with any product, but the mistake is an “honest” one in nature; no intent to defraud or deceive. It could boil down to a bad batch of parts, perhaps a problem with the materials, or perhaps even a worker that brought his emotional baggage into the factory, resulting in problems with the production. These are often caught, and then easily corrected.

But in the Dieselgate issue, the company was banking on the fact that emissions regulators had only the fixed emissions testing rigs, and designed their defeat device to beat it. Volkswagen even engaged in an expensive Clean Diesel campaign to market their product, and they've been doing it very successfully for a long time. But an NGO in the United States, the International Council on Clean Transportation, was able to unravel what VW had been doing. Using a still bulky but mobile rig, they were able to find out just how bad VW's diesels truly were. They were emitting 8 to 40 times what was allowed, according to the ICCT.

You know what happened next. VW had to pay billions in dollars in fines, and recalled and bought back hundreds of thousands of supposedly Clean Diesel cars in the United States alone. Lots are filled with cars that are worthless for resale given their illegal status. Two VW executives are also in the US; they're serving prison terms for fraud.

Moreover, it triggered wave after wave of inspections, re-tests, and even raids of other car manufacturers, not just Volkswagen. Just last month, Daimler (which owns Mercedes-Benz) had to recall over 774,000 cars allegedly fitted with defeat devices (software) too. Even BMW is now being put under tight scrutiny, though they have denied any wrongdoing.

The issue wasn't over though. Earlier this year, news broke about VW, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW reportedly supporting and funding emissions testing in their name; tests that subjected monkeys to the fumes from their cars. Yes, it's animal cruelty. Of course the companies distanced themselves from the tests, and that's just another chapter of the ongoing Dieselgate matter that has dragged the once unassailable reputation of German cars through the mud. Or smoke.

Now many are wondering what this means for those of us who don't live in the United States or in Europe where the steamroller is out for those who are a part of dieselgate. Even the fact that we all breathe the same air (and automotive emissions play a central role in that) allows some to downplay the implications of dieselgate. It's not hard to see why many dismiss dieselgate as a Eurpean or American problem; Euro 5 and Euro 6 emissions standards are not in place in our market, in fact we just implemented Euro 4 at the start of this year. So to illustrate, I'd like to sum up the issue using a very straightforward term.

Trust.

As children, we were taught that trust is something that takes a lifetime to earn, but only takes a moment to lose. And once gone, it's hard to re-earn it. And the once ironclad trust we put in German engineering -something that we believed to be infallible, above-board, and the absolute-best- is gone. Volkswagen's dieselgate did that.

The loss of trust is vital because its applicable to everything. Can you honestly say you trust a vehicle if you know the company that made it can condone deception of any kind? You start to question a lot of other things about your car. Will stability control or the anti-lock brakes work in an emergency maneuver? Will the body of the car be able to safely protect my family in a crash? Will the fuses prevent an electrical fire? Will these airbags deploy?

Everything is questionable once trust is lost, and it doesn't matter where in the world you are. If you can't trust an automaker, you don't buy their cars. It's that simple.

But trust isn't impossible to get back, so long as you take the responsibility, apologize and try to do right; that's the basic step-by-step on how to recover from a PR nightmare. Yet that's not what we're getting from the German companies, as shown by VW. They tried to lay the blame squarely on a couple of software engineers and are under suspicion for trying to cover it all up, so much so that just a few weeks ago, Audi CEO Rupert Stadler was arrested by German authorities, and why VW's now former CEO Martin Winterkorn is being investigated. 

There needs to be a change at the top management levels of the German car companies, especially in the way they respond to these allegations. If you're caught cheating, the worst thing you can do is try to lie or try to cover up your way out of it.

They could have learned from Toyota after the troubles the Japanese automaker experienced in 2010. Toyota's turmoil involved recalls over potentially problematic pedals that can cause unintended acceleration. Instead of letting his vice presidents go to the U.S. Congress to be effectively grilled by lawmakers, the automaker's CEO, Akio Toyoda, went there himself. 

Toyoda took full responsibility, apologized, and said they will work to make it better. But perhaps the key part of that statement he made on CSPAN were the words he used; words that perhaps enabled the company to move forward and never look back.

“As you well know, I am the grandson of the founder, and all the Toyota vehicles bear my name,” said Akio Toyoda. “For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.” 

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