I was watching TV when a Volkswagen commercial came on. I found myself thinking, “Why on earth would I go in and test drive one of those?” You probably think this is irrational, because they are quality cars. But who trusts Volkswagen after this past week?
Volkswagen has admitted to installing software rigged to defeat emissions testing, apparently in 11 million vehicles. The software to blame for the scandal was intentionally designed. Unlike most automotive industry scandals, this was not a design flaw. In past controversies, whether it be Ford Pinto gas tanks or GM ignition switches or Toyota gas pedals, the car makers did not deliberately design systems intended to cause harm to customers. What has always been in question is what the companies did once they found out that they had a problem. And though the clarity of who is to blame has varied across cases, people have recoiled at evidence that car makers knew there was a problem, but decided not to act, because of a calculation that it would be less expensive to do nothing and to address lawsuits that might arise than it would be to recall cars or replace parts.
Volkswagen’s dishonesty may not directly threaten lives in the short run, but the software was intentionally designed to mislead not just the regulators, but the public. Volkswagen has built a very successful advertising campaign around clean diesel vehicles that will get over 800 miles per tank of gas. What they did not reveal is that the truth is that you can have EITHER a clean diesel vehicle OR get over 800 miles per tank of gas. Playing on their deep knowledge of the regulatory environments in Europe and the United States, they rightly calculated that their deception would not be detected. In fact, it was only because private testers were able to evaluate several vehicles that the issue was discovered at all. The intent of the American testers was to find clean vehicles with results that would allow them to put pressure on European regulators to adopt tighter standards. The testers were reportedly the most surprised people of all at their results.
When regulators and those involved in the testing tried to confront Volkswagen about it, executives repeatedly denied that there were any issues and questioned the competence of the testers. The company’s persistence in resisting the questions of the testers, and their refusal to conduct their own investigation to support their claims, give the impression in hindsight that Volkswagen executives were being deliberately misleading. This is why CEO Martin Winterkorn’s expression of shock about the systematic dishonesty in the company rings hollow. It was only when the EPA threatened not to allow the company to sell Volkswagen and Audi diesel models in the U.S. that they admitted to the problem. The German transport minister says that 2.8 million vehicles sold in Germany are affected.
Acting VW Chairman Berthold Huber stated, “I want to be very clear, the manipulation of tests for diesel engines is a moral and political disaster.” That is exactly the right term, but it is more than that. It is an indictment of the very culture that has driven Volkswagen to become the number one automaker worldwide, having surpassed Toyota only a few months ago. According to a New York Times article, it wasn’t until September 3 that “a group of senior engineers” admitted the truth. The truth is that a large number of people within Volkswagen knew exactly what was going on; this was not some rogue employee. It was a result of the culture.
And this is almost always true in major corporate scandals. The fact that so many are involved gives each individual an excuse that “this is not me” doing this, but management, or the market pressure, or the strategy. It is why the second half of the Aggie Honor Code so often ignored by students—“or tolerate those who do”—is critical to living out ethics in the business world or in the public square. We actually have immense tolerance for those who do when they are close to us, part of the same company or the same institution with the same goals we have. But we ought not to.
The results of this tolerance are inevitable, and oft repeated, crash and burn events. Instead of catching things early, we only find out when the results are devastating. Instead of being able to adjust and let the air out of the balloon slowly, we get an explosion.
The results include Volkswagen taking a $7.3 billion charge to earnings in the third quarter, and EPA fines that could (but likely will not) reach $18 billion. There will be shareholder lawsuits after a two-day drop of 35 percent in the company’s share price, and plaintiffs’ lawyers are lining up for their share of class action suits from car owners.
And, inevitably, we get more regulation. This is sure to come after the Volkswagen affair. Of course, there are good by products of that regulation—in this case, perhaps, more truth-telling and cleaner air. But the entire market will bear the cost of that regulation; unjustly, that includes those who tell the truth and compete honestly and, ultimately, the consumer.
I may get emotional about this type of deception, but the market is perfectly rational in its response. That 35 percent share price drop is simply a shift in predictions about two things—significant decreases in future cash flows and more risk in the stock. What is unclear at this point is the long-term effect on diesel car sales, which represent about half of VW’s market in Europe, and on the costs and rigor of future testing.
But you can be confident of this: Volkswagen created a culture of dishonesty at the highest levels. We can argue about who knew what, when. But there is no transparency there. In fact, apparently the American arm of the company was kept in the dark about what was going on until right before the EPA announcement. This is what a high competence, low integrity environment looks like.
And if you trust Volkswagen, you do so at your own peril.