I'm stunned by Volkswagen's emissions-cheating scandal. I've never encountered an auto industry lie quite like this.
I don't mean the deception. I've seen lots of that in four decades on the auto beat. Gaming the system. Aggressively interpreting rules. Some traffic-cops-won't-stop-you-for-five-over thinking. Lots of post-error cover-ups.
But by using software to make diesels compliant only when tested but run "dirty" all other times, Volkswagen didn't bend the rules. It deliberately broke them.
Forget sins of omission or obfuscation. VW's solution to a tough engineering challenge was to cheat.
Volkswagen's violation of trust damages the entire industry's credibility.
But the biggest betrayal is to the German people. Many are shaken to the core.
In Germany, VW is more than a national icon. It's the post-World War II national symbol of resilience, self-reliance and rebirth. It's the poster child for co-determination, the national system that gives labor and management equal say and equal responsibility for the success of major corporations.
There's no American equivalent, no company as important to ordinary citizens as Volkswagen is in Germany.
So imagine discovering that your favorite athlete, one you named your child after, spent the last six years in cahoots with gamblers to throw games. That kind of gut punch.
VW's situation startles me on another level: how long the automaker let this continue without engineering a fix.
VW started selling diesels tuned to emit 10 to 40 times the permissible limit of a well-known toxin back in 2009 in America. It admits it has sold 11 million diesel vehicles with similar bogus programming around the world.
Yet in six years, VW hasn't found a way to reduce oxides of nitrogen emissions so it doesn't need to cheat?
It takes arrogance to assume you'll never get caught. To keep it up over six years, you have to believe that nobody else is smart enough to notice what you've done.
To some, that may seem like a classic example of German arrogance.
But after living five years near Munich, I concluded that Germans by and large aren't arrogant.
A lot of what appears to be arrogance is protective armor. Like a socially insecure person compensating by being stiffly formal. Beneath that formality, most Germans desperately want to do right.
Germans also tend to hold themselves to high standards, both personally and professionally. Precision is valued, whether it's sub-millimeter tolerances in the shop or straight-line, shrub-free transitions between public forests and farmers' fields. Germans raise their children to obey rules, do their best and stand straight. For most Germans I know, polite formality comes easy.
If Germans have a universal trait, it's a love of nature. They live weekends and holidays outdoors. If the sun is out, so are Germans: hiking, cycling, mountain climbing. Protecting the environment is a personal commitment.
So the sudden revelation that iconic Volkswagen, of all companies, intentionally broke the rules, duped 11 million customers who thought they were being green, and spewed tons of toxins into the environment for years is almost incomprehensible. And shameful.
Volkswagen's sins have crashed down on the core beliefs of ordinary Germans.