How did the world’s most boring car company manage such epic fraud?

Of all the companies to get busted perpetrating massive environmental fraud, I would have thought Volkswagen the least likely. Even those skinny jeans-wearing eco-hipsters at Tesla might have seemed more willing to capitulate to the huge pressure to produce innovative green vehicles than Volkswagen, the world’s most boringly consistent car company.

How on earth has a company dull enough to name its two most popular models after the world’s two most bourgeois sports managed to concoct a scheme so dodgy that even cigarette company executives must be doffing their tar-encrusted hats?

The more I learn about the scheme, the more astonished I am. Their diesel system was clever enough to know when it was being tested by the likes of the US EPA; during these tests harmful emissions of nitrous oxides would be prevented, whereas under normal circumstances the cars spewed forth between 10 and 40 times the permitted amount.

(Which is incredibly dastardly, of course, but also yet another impressive piece of German engineering.)

The impact of these unauthorised extra emissions could be severe. It’s estimated that diesel-powered Volkswagens in the UK may be responsible for as many harmful emissions of NOx as all the country’s power stations put together. And the emission of nitrous oxides has been shown to cost thousands of lives annually.

The company’s reputations for safety in crash tests and innovations in collision-avoidance systems seem fairly moot if what’s coming out of its exhaust pipes is deadly.

And we’re talking about Volkswagen, for goodness’ sake! The company whose Beetle was the official car of flower power, and whose Kombi was so popular with hippies that it’s mandatory for drivers to exchange peace signs when they pass one another on the highway. (Seriously, this is a thing, based on my travels in my friends’ khaki model when I was a kid).

In recent decades, its cars have been predominantly associated with inner-city architect types who appreciate their Teutonic minimalism. I used to drive a dark grey Golf when I briefly lived in Surry Hills, and it was often hard to distinguish mine from the half-dozen other identical ones parked on the same street.

Sure, OK, the company has its roots in Nazi Germany, but that was a long time ago. Today’s Europe is environmentally conscious almost to a fault. In fact, the switch to diesel to reduce CO2 emissions seems literally to have been a fault, given the subsequent impact on health from all those extra emissions.

Volkswagen drivers are, above all, boring. After five years with a capricious Peugeot, I got one because I wanted a car that would keep me safe in a collision, never break down, and fit into inner-city parking spaces. In other words, for reasons so practical that I’m embarrassed to report them.

VW is known as a reliable, predictable, safe brand. And that’s perhaps what’s most surprising about the Volkswagen controversy – it seems so profoundly risky. Given the multitude of car tests performed around the world, surely somebody might have experimented with emissions outside a lab?

Surely questions like these were always inevitable. Scientists had already noted that improved diesel standards weren’t leading to the forecast reduction in deaths. And I discovered, after only a brief search, a 2014 study claiming that real-world diesel car emissions were much higher than reported.

And yet Volkswagen committed to a strategy that, if revealed, was always going to be devastating for both their bottom line and their reputation. They programmed their cars to evade detection. It wasn’t an oversight or an accident, it was a deliberate deception when their whole brand proposition is based on safety and environmental consciousness.

Volkswagen’s Australian website says:

Think Blue embodies Volkswagen’s goal of creating environmentally friendly products and solutions, communicating and encouraging better environmental behaviour and getting involved in initiatives that contribute to a sustainable future.

Last week that might have seemed plausible, now it seems like so much corporate guff.

The reason for this crisis was that Volkswagen was expected to deliver more fuel-efficient diesel cars, with sufficient power, at a reasonable price. Something had to give in this equation, and clearly, it was emissions. Their “clean diesel” cars were based on a falsehood.

But the same market and regulatory pressures apply across the industry, especially in Europe. Will Volkswagen be only the first manufacturer to get caught out?

There’s a German industry website called “Clearly Better Diesel“, which trumpets the kinds of breakthrough that got Volkswagen into trouble:

Clean Diesel technology has changed everything. From the pump to the engine, it’s remarkably improved the driving experience. Say goodbye to loud trips with dirtier exhaust. And hello to great MPG, powered with exhilarating performance.

Well, Volkswagen will now be forced to say goodbye to dirtier exhaust, to the tune of billions of dollars. What about all the other diesel manufacturers? Is current diesel technology itself incapable of producing low emissions?

If a company like Volkswagen can deceive supposedly tough regulators around the world so successfully for so long, it’s clear that the green bona fides of large companies like it cannot be taken for granted. In particular, as the Climate Change Authority has noted, the idea of self-regulation seems risible given what we’ve learned about Volkswagen this week.

Clearly, the price of environmental safety is eternal and independent vigilance – along with improved emissions tests in real-world conditions. Then Volkswagen drivers might once again be able to flash one another peace signs without feeling like they’re choking the planet.

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