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Alternative title

Gewinnen Durch Betrug

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I was fresh out of engineering school in 1978 when I went for an interview at a Bangalore-based German manufacturer of highly sophisticated cutting tools.

The interview didn’t go too well. How could it? I had a massive hangover. The previous night I’d flown in at the expense of this company and at the airport lounge, proceeded to get sozzled.

Actually we proceeded to get sozzled. The lady in the next seat in the plane, a comely 40-year old flirt, had taken me there and had wanted me to stay the night with her but I had ta refuse the offer. But this is not about the woman and me, don’t waylay me there.

The interview was a disaster. And short. Disaster interviews are somehow always short. As I was taking my leave, I turned around and told the German Managing Director,’ Auf wiedersehn, mein Herr.’

Bowled over, he asked,’ Do you know German?’

Breezily I shot back,’ I think that every mechanical engineer must know a bit of German.’

I got the job. And I stayed and prospered there for six of the most satisfying years of my career in India. It was a disciplined work environment that rewarded merit. The German managers and technicians revelled in getting their hands dirty and going hands-on at nearly every task. Quality control was paramount and nothing else mattered.

After that, my German hang-up sort of remained through the rest of my working life. All a company had to do was to have a German sounding name and I was a sucker for it. My tape-recorder was Grundig, my hair trimmer was Wahl, my shaver – Braun and my radio – Telefunken.

I even tried a German condom in my heyday once. It was called Rau und Uneben. Don’t look it up – the company went out of business. My girlfriend loved it.  ‘I feel like I have a porcupine inside me,’ she would gurgle in delight. Unfortunately it was an expensive ‘spend’ and I went back to nirodh and a test-tube brush.

Getting myself a VW as my next car had always been a dream. The Volkswagen Beetle is perhaps the only development that Hitler actively supported, which I admire. I dreamed of taking a consenting adult German blonde woman to the seaside, parking next to some bramble bushes and making love right there on the front seat. I could imagine her writhing and saying something unintelligible like, ‘Fick mich mehr! Schwerer! Schwerer!’

Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945), the German Dictator admires a model of the Volkswagen car and is amused to find the engine in the boot. He is with the designer Ferdinand Porsche (left), and to the right Korpsfuhrer Huehnlein, Dr Ley, Schmeer, and Werlin. (Photo by Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Adolf Hitler, admiring the Beetle, 1938

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I would have realized the dream of owning a VW long ago, had my two Toyotas not been as stubborn as Queen Liz the Second. They refuse to call it a day.

VW, like most other European car manufacturers, specializes in producing diesel passenger cars. A diesel engine bears certain advantages over it’s gasoline cousin – it adds 10-20% more power, picks up speed much quicker due to a higher low-end torque and generally gives an upwardly mobile yuppie a fun ride. You step on the gas and baby, it explodes into action. A diesel engine is also easier to maintain and more durable than a gasoline engine and that’s the reason why you see them on heavy commercial vehicles.

Unfortunately, diesel car exhausts contain a brew of gases that are loosely termed as nitrogen oxides, a mixture of nitrous oxide(NO) and nitrogen dioxide(NO2). Together, the mix is called NOx, a gas which reacts with moisture, and other compounds in the air to form tiny particles, which penetrate deep into sensitive areas of the lungs and cause respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis. They also aggravate existing heart disease and lead to premature death.  

While, in Canada and the US, diesel prices are higher than gasoline, Europe artificially regulates gasoline prices higher by almost 50%, in order to encourage more diesel car sales. And bingo, Europe has lower emission standards for diesel-driven cars. A conspiracy there maybe, no?

Folks the world over actually pay a premium for German cars, ranging from $1000 to $7000 depending upon the model, so highly regarded are they and I have always wondered how the Germans manage to make their cars so reliable, efficient and environmentally friendly.

Now I have the simple answer to my wonderment – they don’t. They just lie that they do.

VW has admitted to cheating. It’s CEO went public stating that this was done by a very few people with the company and no one else, including himself, had an inkling this subterfuge was going on. He might as well have added that pigs can fly.

VW has confirmed building into the software that went into 11,000,000 of their cars, a macro that is known now as a ‘defeat device’. It is actually not a device, but a software code that detects when the vehicle is actually being tested for legal compliance with emission standards. During tests, the ‘Defeat Device’ switches the car’s engine performance to a low-emission mode and is found to be within limits, while the car actually runs at a lower power and pick-up than what it promises it’s customers. VW could do this since the test parameters are known by the car manufacturer in advance and usually the course is set as a straight one, without turns.

The tests were conducted by an independent non-profit organization called The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), founded to provide unbiased research and technical and scientific analysis to environmental regulators worldwide. With offices across the globe, it’s mission is to improve the environmental performance and energy efficiency of road, marine, and air transportation, in order to benefit public health and mitigate climate change. The members of the council are primarily drawn from the environmental and energy regulatory agencies in those nations that have major vehicle markets.

Real life road tests were carried out late fall, last year and what ICCT found in the cars was shocking – the emission levels of nitrous oxide were more than 30 times above the acceptable standards. Here’s where the story gets interesting and it becomes clear why I renamed VW as VD – VolksDummkopfen…..

VW told ICCT that it was going to do a ‘voluntary recall’. Given the reputation for German honesty and reliability, ICCT agreed and soon VW came back and said, ‘Yoohoo ICCT, we fixed it!’

VW did nothing actually. No one knows why VW didn’t fix the problem by simply removing the defeat device software code. But of course that would mean that the vehicles would no longer be able to guarantee the power and pick-up that it had printed on it’s colorful brochures and could therefore lay the company open to lawsuits from consumers. VW found itself between a rock and a hard place and obviously decided that the hard place was the better alternative.

They were wrong. Given the swiftness with which VW came back and claimed to have fixed the problem, ICCT smelled a rat and decided to do tests of it’s own – and the rest is history.

The cars affected are the smaller diesel models – the Golf, Beetle, Passat, Jetta and the Audi A3, from 2009 to 2015. The American Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) has barred from sale all 2016 models and 2015 models that are still in the showrooms.

Volkswagen has set aside $7.3 billion for just the cost of rectifying the fault and putting the cars back on the road. The legal costs and fines in the US, as well as with European and Asian regulators cannot be quantified at the present moment. The ICCT is now expanding it’s testing to other manufacturers as well, assuming that VW may not be the only one with Defeat Devices. Cheating is an infectious disease.

The lab-environment emission test is simple, conducted along a straight stretch of level pavement, creating ideal conditions for driving, while an instrument called a dynamometer does the test. It is very far from real-life driving conditions. They don’t make you parallel park and slightly graze the car in front and then slink away, looking over your shoulder. You don’t have to screech to a halt in order to give a brunette a lift to the metro and chat her up. There is no one giving you the middle finger at how you’re holding up traffic.

The EU is supposed to have much lower emission standards than the US but if you visit New York or LA during a smog roll, you’ll feel as if you’re living inside Keith Richards’ lungs. America is however stricter only for diesel cars and nitrous oxide emissions that they give out – not gasoline cars which spew CO2. This is because almost 95% of all diesel cars in America are actually imported.

This is definitely a conspiracy, oh yeah. Squish European imports without having to raise duties or banning them – so that American companies can sell their own 5000cc gas guzzling SUVs and macho trucks. Hey, this is America and this is how the American brand of capitalism works – get ahead a bit too far and America will surely cut you down to size.

11 million cars – that is more than a year’s production for VW. And the number could reach 18 mill by the time the dust settles. Unlike in the case of the Toyota and GM recalls of recent years, VW has already admitted to cheating and no deaths have been caused. Any class-action could be wrapped up within 2-3 years max. Already government treasury officials the world over, are salivating over the fines, which are expected to be in billions and the automobile class-action tort attorneys are placing down payments on 80-foot yachts. In the US however, the fines and settlements will be small since diesel vehicles form less than 1% of all passenger cars on the road there.

For VW customers, you can expect a recall notice shortly. You’ll have to bring your car in. The technicians will reprogram the computer and you’ll soon realize that, instead of riding a ferocious cougar, you’re now sitting on a dumb camel. You will reach for the phone and call Steve Berman (attorney, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLP), a law firm that specializes in automotive consumer class action lawsuits. He will be waiting for your call – I can bet on that.

The question on everybody’s mind is – will VW survive this crisis? It is currently the world’s largest car company, with 100 manufacturing plants in which 600,000 workers produce 10 million cars every year. My feel is, just like GM, Toyota and Ford in recent years (and BP in the Deepwater Horizon blowout), VW will do a deal and walk away to cheat it’s customers another day.

But, you ask, what about the environmental damage that VW cars have caused all these years with nitrous oxide emissions 30 times higher than normal? How will VW be made to pay for, say the recurring asthma attacks of 70-year old Steve Bucksworth in Daytona? Or the lack of libido of a 60-year old Bengali in Montreal? (Pollooshun isn’t good for sex, didn’t you know that?) Such damages can never be quantified and perpetrators such as VW will never be adequately punished for their deceit.

There is a silver lining in this though. Just as the auto industry went through serious introspection after it’s Ralph Nader moment in the 1960s, which resulted in substantially safer cars on the roads today, so will the VW deception hopefully force car manufacturers to confront their own duplicitous nature and be forced to work toward a cleaner driving experience.

All this reminds the world about an oft-repeated Darwinian lesson – that without regulators, companies will cheat to get ahead. Natural selection after all is about the survival of the fittest – by any means.

And not being a dummkopfen and getting caught…….