National Consumers League

Volkswagen scandal undermines public confidence

sg.jpgIt’s hard to explain how a company such as Volkswagen, with a strong reputation among consumers for making affordable, safe, and reliable cars, could have gone so far astray. VW computer engineers, we’ve learned of late, developed and installed software for emissions testing in their diesel cars intended to trick the system and falsely improve emissions scores.

The Germans take great pride in their auto-manufacturing prowess. In my years as Senior Product Safety Counsel at Consumers Union, I marveled at how German cars – Audi, Mercedes, BMW, and VW  – were often well ahead of the curve in innovative safety technologies – frontal and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, backup cameras – often adopting important safety technology long before the American-built vehicles.  

Apparently in this VW scandal, the software was set up to detect when testing was going on and reduce emissions. But during normal driving conditions, when the vehicles had better performance, they produced as much as 40 times the acceptable amount of nitrogen oxide.

VW’s dirty tricks affects 480,000 cars in the United States and will require a major fix, the experts say, involving perhaps 10 hours of work for each car. More than 11 million cars globally are affected. The head of VW America, who testified this week in Congress, said that a few engineers rigged the engines without the knowledge of higher ups.  That sounds suspicious to me but okay, maybe they did. Like hackers who get their jollies designing malware or computer viruses just to see if they can mess things up for a few million unsuspecting users.

Time will tell whether this deception was conceived by company officials or indeed a scheme developed by a few rogue software engineers. Regardless, this further undermines the public’s confidence in automakers to do right by their customers.