John Drescher

Volkswagen damages its reputation for humility and honesty

AVolkswagen diesel engine.
AVolkswagen diesel engine. AFP/Getty Images

Engineers and scientists in California recently helped uncover a scheme that could affect air quality in North Carolina, as well as those who drive diesel cars made by Volkswagen.

The German carmaker, when confronted with evidence by American regulators and researchers, admitted last month that it had rigged software in thousands of its diesel cars to circumvent U.S. emissions standards.

Volkswagen’s CEO resigned, and U.S. regulators say the cars, which emit up to 40 times the standard for nitrogen oxides, must be fixed, although owners can continue to drive them in the meantime. Dealers are stuck with diesel Volkswagens they can’t sell.

About 480,000 of the cars sold in the United States since 2008 are suspected of having a faulty emission system. Disabling emission controls helps cars get much better mileage, which has been a selling point for Volkswagen.

The company, which has been ranked among the most reputable in the world, faces possible criminal and civil action, as well as a devastating blow to its reputation for humility and honesty.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has joined about 30 other states in investigating Volkswagen. “We’re looking at the automaker’s conduct, its representations to consumers about gas mileage, performance and emissions and the future impact on consumers such as potential reduction in resale value,” Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, wrote in an email.

Cooper’s staff also is seeking to determine how many of the vehicles are registered in North Carolina. Volkswagen is the largest automaker in the world.

Coughing, wheezing

Diesel cars, promising high mileage and low emissions, have been an important part of Volkswagen’s strategy. Europe has far more diesel vehicles than the United States, but the cheating was discovered here. That is perhaps not surprising. European automakers, as well as some leading politicians, have for years fought regulations, and European air standards are less stringent than those in the United States.

Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, contribute to nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. Exposure to these pollutants can cause a range of health problems, including coughing and wheezing, and can lower resistance to illnesses such as influenza. Children and the elderly especially are at risk.

A key player in the discovery of Volkswagen’s fraud was the influential California Air Resources Board, which plays a major role in setting and enforcing standards for that state. California, with nearly 40 million people (about four times as many people as North Carolina), is a huge market. Its air-quality regulations often are adopted eventually by the federal government.

California has the worst air-quality in the nation. According to the Air Resources Board, about 7,200 premature deaths a year are caused there by air pollution.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman, said the board has had bipartisan support in California because smog is considered such a major problem in her state. She is a political appointee who has served in Democratic and Republican administrations.

The Air Resources Board worked with researchers at West Virginia University and the International Council on Clean Transportation to uncover Volkwagen’s scam.

“We’re proud of the role our engineers played” in revealing the fraud, Nichols said, calling it “disappointing and in some ways shocking.” She added: “We have to get to the bottom of this in terms of who knew what and when.”

Merkel as car rep

Nichols spoke last week in San Francisco to a group of German and American journalists. Germany’s economy is the largest in Europe, and carmakers are a large employer in Germany.

She told the story of when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a scientist, visited Los Angeles about six years ago and met with a group led by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nichols was impressed by Merkel’s presence and command of the subject matter. “I was awestruck. She was amazing,” Nichols said.

But Nichols also was struck by the role Merkel played. “She was there as a spokesman for the German auto industry,” Nichols said. “It seemed like a telling moment. I was quite taken aback.” She said she couldn’t imagine an American president playing the same role with foreign officials.

At one point, Nichols said Merkel turned to her and said: “‘Your NOx standards are too strict, they are hurting our German diesels.’”

Volkswagen apparently also thought the standards were too strict. Its solution was a sophisticated software algorithm that turns full emissions controls on during testing but off during normal driving.

The Germans are known for their engineering prowess and the ruse probably seemed clever to those who developed it. But now the company faces a long, hard, expensive drive back to credibility.

Affected models

About 480,000 diesel cars manufactured by Volkswagen and sold in the United States since 2008 are thought to have faulty emission systems. N.C. consumers who own one of these cars can file a complaint online at ncdoj.gov or call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within the state. Affected diesel models include:

▪ Jetta (model years 2009-15)

▪ Beetle (2009-15)

▪ Audi A3 (2009-15)

▪ Golf (2009-15)

▪ Passat (2014-15)

Sources: California Air Resources Board and N.C. Attorney General’s office.

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