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A convenient distraction

Midway through a marathon Powerpoint presentation, German sportscar maker Porsche highlighted its new Panamera engine family, boasting about improved CO2 figures from the diesel powertrain.

Nothing new in that. But Porsche is part of the Volkswagen Group. The Volkswagen Group that was caught cheating last year (well, the year before, actually) and Porsche got dragged into it all via its Audi-built 3.0 turbodiesel motor. And the Volkswagen Group has done an appalling job of communicating how it happened exactly, who let it happen, and what remains unfound. Worse, with the sticky bandage being pulled off one hair at a time, the initial claims that the Group’s priority was rebuilding trust in it look superficially convenient, given that it seems less and less likely that it will ever publicly release the findings of its internal investigation.

Volkswagen blames much of this on being legally hamstrung by Jones Day, the US law firm brought in to patch things up with the US government, which has been affronted by Volkswagen’s actions.

Porsche tried its best to keep its head down to protect the huge percentage of Volkswagen Group profit margin that it contributes, which is what Audi also did for a while. That proved unsustainable for Audi when the same emissions-cheating software codes were found in the 3-liter TDi units it designed and built for itself, Volkswagen and Porsche. And then it emerged from the Jones Day investigation (details of which are, by law, accessible to prosecutors in the USA, even if they’re not available to Volkswagen’s board of management) that Dieselgate gestated at Audi in 1999.

Porsche’s method since has been to pretend it had nothing to do with them. Not our engines, they argued. Audi’s engines. And Volkswagen’s engines, they said. But it wore thin, this attitude, coupled with Audi’s constant referencing to Volkswagen and Volkswagen’s referencing to Jones Day and then roadblock.

It wore thin, too, that Dieselgate wasn’t the end of the story, but the start, and that most of the European (and, in particular, German) car industry has been found to have glaring areas where they are ethically unsound.

And it has worn transparent with journalists that people they’ve known for years have lied to them, deliberately misinformed them, and claimed technical breakthroughs that even those of us with engineering bents couldn’t disprove without access to our own university research teams, software hackers and tens of millions of dollars in cash.

At the Panamera launch, one journalist heard the CO2 claims and asked what every other journalist had been thinking: “How can we believe you?” In a pretty good indicator of the corporate culture, instead of soothing the ruffled feathers, Porsche’s engine people got angry, jumped up and down, and attacked the questioner.

This isn’t new. A year ago when I asked a Group board member why we should believe their claims about crash safety, given they’d been cheating in the other big area of compliance, I was attacked, too. There were incredulous sighs, accusations that I was being unprofessional and that I didn’t understand a complex industry. All in response to what seemed to be an obvious question to ask on behalf of readers.

Belligerence and portraying itself as a victim of media oppression, it seems, hasn’t just become the Volkswagen Group position. I’m beginning to think it always was.

 

21 September 2016

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