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It is all over the news, and the case seems clearcut: Volkswagen cheated with emissions in the US, and possibly elsewhere. Potentially, the other brands of the Group – Audi, Škoda and Seat, might also be affected. The Chairman knew nothing about this, but has resigned.
On second thought, the story raises more questions than it answers. The more one thinks about it, the un-worldlier it all seems.
First, Volkswagen had a fairly good record on emissions – presumably WITH the cheating software – but not spectacularly so. We cannot state that Volkswagen motors beat the competition by an order of magnitude of 40 times. However, in the news it is claimed that emissions of certain particles are something like 40 times over the legal limits in the US without the cheating software. This, in turn, could mean two things: either Volkswagen makes spectacularly bad motors, or … the other manufacturers have roughly similar emissions which are also not detected, for whatever reasons. I am not claiming that the others are also cheating, I am just asking the question.
The second aspect is, how much cheating was this? Many among us know that figures like consumption and emissions are largely theoretic. Does your car consume on average what is promised in the brochure? Or are you also among those who unluckily seem to have gotten the model that consumes (substantially-) more? We also know that the difference between theoretic and real life consumption is caused by engineering decisions, such as making the top gear very long. This causes theoretic consumption to drop, but real life consumption to increase as one has to change gears down substantially more often. I once drove a long distance with a Škoda Superb 1.6 Diesel engine, and later the same distance with our own Škoda 2.0 Diesel. The result? At least ten % more consumption with the SMALLER engine, whereas theoretically it should have been the other way round. The conclusion seems to be that in the car industry, engineering is geared towards lowering emissions and consumption under theoretical conditions. Knowing this, I fail to see how much more cheating the new event is as compared to what has been going on for many years, and for which Governments and Authorities carry much more responsibility than the car industry.
The third aspect is the most puzzling one. IF this was really cheating, how can anyone have dared to take such an impossible risk? It seems hard to believe that this was a secret shared by the few. Indeed, the way this software “worked” must have been known by hundreds inside Volkswagen, if not more. How can any Manager have thought to get away with this, knowing that hundreds inside know something which will cost the company billions if it gets out? One disgruntled employee would be enough for this to get out.
The last aspect, and one we shall probably never know, is how much Winterkorn knew about this. On the one hand, it is certainly possible that he knew nothing. I run a company of 250 people – a tiny ant compared to Volkswagen – and I daily “discover” things inside my company. And I do not like or agree with all things I discover. I also do not know how many other things I do not know and which I have not discovered yet and possibly never will. So from that point of view, yes, I believe it possible he did not know. On the other hand, I should think that things like emissions and consumption are of such paramount importance throughout the industry that this topic must reach Board level frequently. My prediction is that this will remain a mystery.
In the final analysis, it is too easy to point the finger at Volkswagen and at Volkswagen alone. Authorities and Regulators should also do some soul searching and revisit how and where they have driven the Industry. We have gotten into this situation with the entire society, not by the actions of one – admittedly very large – company. Although it looks for now like Volkswagen will pay the price. Which may not be fair.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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