An Inconvenient Truth for VW

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

While writing my story this morning on Volkswagen’s troubles and its new CEO, I googled the carmaker’s much-trumpeted slogan: Clean Diesel. This is what comes up on VW’s Clean Diesel site:

I guess there’s some truth in advertising.

Meanwhile, many readers commented on my story earlier this week on the resignation of Martin Winterkorn, the CEO hit by the scandal:

It’s the Sgt. Schultz defense: I know nothing, I see nothing. Pretty pathetic for a captain of industry.

Another reader differs:

He probably was NOT aware. Rarely is a CEO an SME on the technical details of the company’s product line(s). But, the CEO is the one that gets the big bucks and also assumes the most risk.

Another is aghast:

Appalling. Brazen. Deceitful. Sheer chutzpah. These are among some of the words that immediately come to mind to describe this incredibly massive breach of the public trust.

The Jetta TDI was high on my consideration list for a new car next year, mainly because I’m commuting over 80 miles a day and need a more fuel-efficient, low emissions vehicle. I have owned two VWs in the last 20 years and loved them both. They’re fun to drive and reasonably priced.

But as of this news, they’ve lost me as a customer. It’s one thing to recall cars that have a defective part; mistakes happen and quality control sometimes lapses. This software, however, was placed intentionally to deceive regulators and consumers. It was willful. And for that, I hope that not only does the EPA put them out of business, but that it also hands this off to the Justice Department to bring criminal charges. The CEO “wasn’t aware”? Baloney. Good riddance.

Now, as my husband put it the other night, “I wonder how many other car manufacturers are doing the same thing?” Excellent question. I hope the EPA plans to audit every other purported low-emissions vehicle.

Another reader also wants broader reform:

How about tightening up the regs on the use of so-called “proprietary” software that currently allow manufacturers to make unsupported (and in this case dishonest) claims about performance, fuel efficiency, safety, etc.? That VW got busted was purely by accident—the company “proprietary” shield precluded regulatory software validation.

Throwing the perps in prison for a long time would be appropriate, too; it's fraud on a massive scale. But ideally we want to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.