Volkswagen: Breach of trust that reaches far beyond automotive industry

30th Oct 2015

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

The world could not have been more surprised to learn that Volkswagen, a German car company known for its environmental stewardship and innovation, had employed so-called defeat devices to rig emissions tests in many of its diesel cars.

A car company that has won awards like the World Environment Center’s 2014 Gold Metal Award for Sustainable Development, as well as two cars receiving the “most environmentally friendly vehicles” in all classes from AUTOTEST magazine in 2014; a car company whose name literally translates to, “The People’s Car” has now completely broken the trust of those people – its customers, manufacturers, dealers, and the governments under which laws it is supposed to abide.

The news broke on September 18, and since then, the company’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has resigned; the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is launching a multi-faceted investigation into the company’s practices; and some UK MPs are even under scrutiny for making moves to block EU steps to clean up air quality, raising questions about their knowledge of the scandal before it became public. The day after the news broke, VW shares went down 20%, the following business day, another 17%. Some wonder if the historic car company, with an almost cult-like following, can survive such a blow.

Needless to say, the company has its work cut out for it in terms of regaining the trust of its customers, dealers, and regulators. The scandal has many consumers up in arms about air quality, as according to Technology Review, “The EPA found the VWs actually emit 40 times the standard rates of nitrogen oxides. It’s difficult to say just how damaging that was, but there is no doubt that NOx – when combined with volatile organic compounds and in the presence of sunlight – creates ground-level ozone, otherwise known as urban smog.”

With up to eleven million automobiles to be recalled worldwide, the scandal is set to cost the company billions. When the Engine Control Unit (ECU) that was designed to be a defeat device is replaced in the diesel cars, they will surely be more efficient, but not as powerful on the road as a result. The combination of power and efficiency is what drew many people to VW diesel, once marketed as “clean diesel.” There will be far-reaching repercussions for the entire diesel industry as a result.

Research has also found that VW is also in violation of EU emissions standards. According to the Scotsman newspaper, “Greenpeace published figures which it claimed show manufacturers of diesel vehicles built to comply with European emissions standards spent up to £13.6 million lobbying EU politicians last year.” The UK, France, and Germany were shown to have lobbied MPs to keep flawed and outdated emissions tests as the standard, while publicly calling for an investigation into the VW scandal.

“Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show the three countries lobbied the European commission to keep loopholes in car tests that would increase real world carbon dioxide emissions by 14% above those claimed.” Such loopholes would not only raise consumers’ annual fuel bill, but also violate EU emission limits, set at 95 grams of CO2 per km. The National Emissions Ceiling Directive, implemented by the European Union, and adopted by the US and other nations via the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, puts limits on four major pollutants; sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and ammonia. The transportation sector is largely responsible for NOx emissions.

Volkswagen may never fully recover from this scandal, and it represents the importance of consumer confidence in a company. In order to market cars as powerful, efficient, and affordable, a formerly reputable company took drastic, unethical measures. They won awards, rebranded diesel, and sold millions of automobiles, yet in one day, all those profits, all the strides made for the diesel car industry, were halted, even reversed. ‘Get rich quick and don’t look back’ may work for a few, but it is often at the expense of the greater machine driving so-called progress.

Honesty and transparency may take longer and be more expensive, but without it, we are left with a misinformed, distrustful public, who can easily take their business elsewhere.

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