Volkswagen of America, as we reported last week, is offering owners of its disgraced diesel cars a "goodwill package" that includes $500 on a prepaid Visa card. It's also giving them a few hoops to jump through to earn their payment.
They'll have to enter their names and identifying information online to get the card sent to them in the mail. Then, once the card arrives, they'll have to take it into a dealership, with the vehicle itself and more pieces of ID, to get the card activated.
They'll also get another $500 to spend at the dealership. So they'll have to visit a dealership once, with the vehicle, to claim their benefits, and perhaps more times to fully redeem them.
As long as that's the case, VW ought to have added one more hoop to its obstacle course: To get the cash, you must get the recall repair done first.
We don't know yet what that repair will be. It could be a software fix, a hardware upgrade, or a combination of the two. It could take weeks or months to figure out. Either way, it's safe to assume that most consumers will need to be given a powerful incentive to get it done.
Federal safety regulators this year have made a crusade out of improving today's pitiful recall repair completion rates. They've signaled that the goal should be nothing less than 100 percent, and they've put the onus on automakers to drive toward that goal. They've taken several steps to boost repair rates, including ordering more timely and official-looking recall notifications and requiring automakers to offer quick-check online databases of pending safety recalls.
And yet, even when their personal safety is on the line, many consumers just don't make the time, or have the time, to call their dealership to check on parts availability or schedule repairs. Federal officials say at least 20 percent of vehicles that are recalled go unrepaired. Last year's record recall volume and this year's complex Takata case are only adding to the risk of recall fatigue.
Volkswagen's case isn't about safety in the conventional sense. There's no life-and-death imperative to get the vehicles fixed, and in most states, there won't be any legal imperative either.
So given the already low rates of recall completion, and the consumer's likely reluctance to accept the performance or fuel-economy compromises that the fix might entail, how will Volkswagen be able to encourage compliance with the recall? How can it get TDI owners to take the trouble to come into the dealership and get their cars fixed?
How about offering them a $500 prepaid Visa card, and an additional $500 to spend at the dealership -- after the repair is done?
More than goodwill, that would show a good-faith effort by Volkswagen to ensure that all its vehicles on the road comply with emissions regulations. With this week's announcement, VW has shown that it cares at least a little about its customers and its reputation.
Now it needs to demonstrate that it cares about the air it's responsible for fouling and the people who breathe it.
At the least, I should hope, Volkswagen will be using the data it collects through the gift-card program to gather up-to-date information on as many owners as possible so it can get past the obstacles that General Motors faced in locating owners of older vehicles with its defective ignition switch. But even the GM case teaches us that finding and notifying customers isn't the hardest part. It's making sure the repairs get done.