'Why the VW scandal will snowball'
London - Paul Willis could not have been more clear. “It's my opinion that the senior management of the company are very precise people. They are very honest people, very direct people. I know these gentlemen. I know them quite well. I find it implausible this is a deliberate intent to mislead people.”
That was three weeks ago, when Willis, head of Volkswagen in the UK, appeared before the Commons Environmental Audit Committee. The MPs wanted to know about the extent of the VW emissions-rigging scandal. As well as heaping praise on his colleagues, and apparently implying the deception was an unfortunate accident, Willis went on to say it was unlikely that further revelations would come out.
I don't know where Willis was yesterday morning, but presumably when the news broke that VW had reported irregularities in carbon dioxide emissions (previously they related to nitrogen oxides, or NOx), he must have been rocked to the core. That, though, has been the problem all along with this story: VW has wanted us to believe it's not so bad, that the cheating was confined to a handful of executives, that it's time for us all to renew our trust in the company and, as its ad puts it, to move on. Instead, another and altogether grimmer picture emerges.
There's been a sense in some quarters of wanting to side with VW, of wishing to retain trust in the manufacturer. It's as if the wrongdoing could turn out to be so enormous, so epic, that we would rather not attempt to grasp its scale. Plus, it exhibits a degree of cynicism that, even by greedy big business standards, is breathtaking. This was the duping of studies designed to make the planet a healthier, better place for future generations. And VW, that most wholesome of brands - maker of the family-friendly, cosy Golf - behaves otherwise.
WHERE DOES IT STOP?
Now we've got not one set of dubious pollution statistics, but two. To the 11 million vehicles affected, we can add another 800 000 - but, if the experience of the first revelations is repeated, that second number could go a lot higher. Certainly the financial markets thought so, sending shares down a further 10 percent.
What seized the investment analysts was the drip, drip of detail coming out of VW. This second discovery, the car giant said, was likely to cost €2bn (R30.3bn). But that's 4.1 times higher per vehicle than the first. In other words, this has the potential to be much worse. What also grabbed them was that, in its latest CO2 admission, VW said “the majority” of vehicles it relates to were diesel. So, in other words, it affects some petrol cars too. And that's a significant step because until now petrol cars were thought to be immune.
It really should not be like this. We live in an age when we're constantly assured that transparency is all, in which corporations invest fortunes in making themselves appear open, clean and concerned. Yet here is one of the smartest firms of all, one that in so many respects was an industry leader, falling back upon blandishments, being economical with the truth, and relying on the slow feed of opaque statements to divert us from the full horror.
It was obvious from day one that this was no one-off incident, and was unlikely to be confined to one or two executives. The “defeat device” - they even had a name for it - was so fiendishly clever that it appears it must have been created deliberately and sanctioned from the very top.
WHY THEY CHEATED
When VW came to design the smaller VW diesel models they used what's called a “lean NOx trap”. Why? Because it's cheaper to install and takes up less space than the alternatives used by rivals. The VW version does not require a tank for urea, the chemical that is added in the other systems to break down NOx.
Here's the rub: the scaled-back VW type affected the vehicle's fuel consumption and acceleration. So someone came up with a solution: the lean trap was switched off when the car was being driven normally but would turn on when it was going through an emissions test. They replicated the conditions of the examination in a piece of software, so the trap kicked in and emissions plummeted. And here's the important bit for the rest of us, who must share the Earth with VW and its products: with the trap turned off, a car on an open road was emitting NOx 40 times the permitted limit.
There's an adage in business that rears up time and again whenever a company is found to have been playing dirty: when it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Other car manufacturers could not understand how VW was able to pass the emissions tests with the lean NOx trap; now they know why.
BEFORE WE MOVE ON
VW would like us to accept that the defeat device was the creation of a small group of engineers and software developers at its Wolfsburg headquarters. That may be so. They may very well have had the idea. But did they authorise its execution and implementation? Were they able to spend millions on the device - because that's what its development and application would have cost - and alter the design of a vehicle, without seeking permission from higher up? And this speculation, don't forget, concerns NOx. We've barely started with CO2.
So far, a handful of employees have faced suspension. If Willis is correct, they will be reinstated. I suspect he's wrong, and they will be far from the last. VW, it's clear, should tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Only then can we, not they, make up our minds about what has occurred. Only then, can VW be allowed to move on.