Silvio Calabi: Outrage over the VW diesel scandal
Rudolf Diesel, the German engineer who invented the engine named after him, disappeared on Sept. 29, 1913. Late that night he jumped from a steamship into the North Sea, and his body was found 10 days later. No one could or would say why he’d done it. He was traveling to London to meet with the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Co.
Whatever was eating at Diesel, it wasn’t a problem with his invention. Although heavier and more expensive than steam or gasoline engines, it was much more efficient. Then, decades later, new technology such as TDI, Volkswagen’s Turbo Diesel Injection, all but erased the soot, stink and clatter of older diesels, and finally it seemed we had it all: high efficiency plus low emissions in one internal-combustion motor. Europeans love diesels because their fuel costs so much, and a vehicle that gets 25 mpg on gas can do 35 mpg on diesel — without, everyone now thought, noxious pollution. Americans began to want such engines, too, and VW happily sold them to us — 480,000 of them since 2010.
Now we find that Volkswagen programmed its four-cylinder TDI “clean” diesels to hold their breath during smog tests and then run dirty on the road, for high mileage. It turns out we can’t have both clean and highly efficient, at least from VW.
Is there a carmaker more respected, even loved than Volkswagen, worldwide? Over here, the plucky little underdog Beetle that looked so odd among Detroit’s behemoths in the 1950s powered an entire generation — my generation. These were cars focused on function, not tailfins. They were affordable quality. They made sense. VW’s smart, warm advertising made us laugh, and we bought millions of their cars. We believed!
The Little Beetle That Could grew into a juggernaut that swallowed up Audi, SEAT, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Bentley, the MAN Group (where Rudolf Diesel developed his engine), Ducati and Porsche. What a lineup! In 2010 the company announced a push to become the world’s largest automaker by 2018. The strategy worked even better than that: Three years ahead of plan — this year — the VW Group, with nearly 600,000 employees and some 120 factories in 28 countries, elbowed aside GM and Toyota to become the car-making king. But someone inside VW had decided to fake its diesels’ efficiency and/or green-ness, presumably to sell more of them. Around the world, one in four Volkswagens lately has been diesel-powered.
I certainly played my part. I’ve been a tremendous fan of diesel VWs, and never hesitated to say and write so. Two years ago, after a story about getting 47 mpg in a Passat TDI, a VW of America manager thanked me for my “clean diesel” emissions analysis. (He is now just as shocked as we all are.) To the 4 million of you who read this column every week, online and in print: I apologize. I drank the Kool-Aid, too. I too need reprogramming.
Globally, 11 million guilty VW engines seem to be spewing 15 to 35 times more soot and nitrogen oxide than their emissions tests indicated — more such contamination than the entire United Kingdom emits. Diesels are especially popular there, but British pundits are now wondering whether the U.S., with its emphasis on “petrol” over diesel, might have been right all along, air-quality-wise.
Although Mercedes-Benz, BMW and others sell diesels that really are both non-polluting and efficient — or so we’re told, and will verify — many people now wonder whether “clean diesel” is an oxymoron like “clean coal.” It’s not impossible that diesel cars could disappear, to be replaced by electrics with their environmentally dodgy batteries. Finally, this could be another blow to the trust we put in science, the sort of fakery that leads people to doubt evolution, climate change, vaccinations and Elvis’s death.
Heads are rolling at VW and the company is restructuring madly. Next will come political posturing, widening investigations, finger-pointing, better testing, class-action lawsuits, hearings, existential penalties and criminal charges. I have to wonder if another German engineer or executive may not decide to exit the way Herr Diesel did a century ago.
Note: Normal service will resume next week with the 2016 Honda Odyssey. Unless some other profound disgrace erupts in the car biz.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.