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Dieselgate

It’s been a slow, gradual build-up of pressure, but the VW ‘Dieselgate’ thing is really starting to get to me. I know there will be some – perhaps many – of you who will think I’ve got this totally wrong, and who will oppose my stance and call me a VW sympathizer, but I have to say, I’m starting to feel sorry for the German engineering powerhouse, and more so for some of the great engineering heads who seem to have rolled out of the auto industry for good.

Some sections of the media have suggested that what VW has done with its ‘cheat software’ is worse than the actions of those banks that were embroiled in the scandal that ultimately instigated the 2008 global financial meltdown.

If I could use stronger words here I would, but I’ll settle with: what utter rubbish.

Let’s be absolutely clear. One set of decisions destroyed the lives of tens (or even hundreds) of millions of people around the world, plunging them into dire financial straits, and putting a question mark over everything from their ability to pay their mortgages through to being able to put food on the table each day. The other set of decisions manipulated fuel consumption and emissions figures in lab and real-world scenarios. Both are forms of deception, but we all know which is the worse of the two.

Here’s the deal: what VW did was wrong, totally and absolutely wrong. The organization not only has questions to answer, but should – and will – face serious financial and reputational repercussions. I really want to be clear on that.

But the fallout since last year has been entirely blown out of proportion. Some of the ‘rubbish’ coming from compensation-chasing lawyers and hyped-up legislators in California and mainland Europe, and some of the media coverage – mainly, actually, from those that are uninformed – staggers me, it really does.

I hate clichés, but people need to see the bigger picture. VW’s brilliant clean diesel engines are already clean – cleaner than many other large-displacement guzzlers being used as transportation across the USA. It’s not like this cheat software reformulated a VW diesel to go from being a breath-of-fresh-air machine to a lung cancer infector. No. These diesel engines from VW, regardless of the cheat software, are pretty sound on (nearly) every level. So, what we’re talking about here is deception – that’s the crime. VW should be made to pay for that, but at the moment, in my opinion, the punishments Wolfsburg is facing really don’t fit the offense.

As a very senior (now banished) VW Group engineering head once told me, “Our cars are actually air-cleaning machines. The air that goes in the front is actually dirtier than the air that comes out the back.”

Now I know there’ll be those that don’t agree, including powertrain engineers working for other companies that have other agendas, keen to slap down the diesel engine once and for all. But everybody readily forgets that diesels are good – it’s what mass transportation in Europe depends on – and today’s diesels are clean and efficient and very, very capable.

I also get the feeling (and this really is just a hunch) that now is the perfect time for some quarters of the industry and surrounding media to take pot-shots at a brand that has brought to market so much engineering greatness, and which has deservedly gone from strength to strength for so many years. Just like deception, jealousy is, after all, in our nature.

I know that I’m in danger of being seen as a biased, diehard VW fan, or a Dieselgate denier (I’m not either, by the way), but really I’m just a firm believer in context.

As the dust settles on Dieselgate, for me there’s a more serious impact that we as an industry need to address: the loss of those captains of engineering that have become the scapegoats for this scandal. You know, I get the chance to speak with many engineering heads – it’s what I love most about my job – and my memories of Ulrich Hackenburg, Wolfgang Hatz and the especially brilliant Jacob Neusser have not been tarnished. Speaking to all three of these masters of engineering at various times over the past few years, I remember thinking just how very clever they were, how lucky VW was to have them, and how lucky our industry was to have them, too.

It’s actually a shame they’re gone, a real shame. I don’t know if they personally were to blame for the cheat software being implemented, but to me it just doesn’t quite add up. What I will say, though, is that as these senior engineers – responsible for so much of what makes the diesel engines of today immeasurably cleaner than those of a decade ago – walked out of VW HQ to be replaced in some instances by (no doubt) very clever marketing bods, the brand and the automotive world it inhabits are, as a result, far weaker, far less innovative.

Now that, to me, is a scandal.

 

18 March 2016

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