Many people have long decried the fact that U.S. auto safety laws don't have the teeth needed to go after executives responsible for corporate law-breaking.
Sure, corporations can be forced to pay huge monetary penalties, but those personally involved never have to pay a penny. That is the way that Congress wanted it, and it has been that way for decades.
But in other areas of the industry, it appears that situation is changing -- and changing dramatically.
A Volkswagen engineer indicted by the federal government has pleaded guilty to charges related to the VW diesel scandal. The employee, who is facing jail time, has agreed to cooperate with authorities and appears ready to implicate others.
Meanwhile, as Bloomberg reported, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' top North American sales executive could face personal charges connected with a federal probe of alleged attempts to falsify the company's monthly sales reports.
A federal grand jury has been impaneled in Detroit to investigate the issue.
Automotive executives facing indictments and jail?
Remarkable. It is the first time I can recall executives in America who could conceivably go to jail for actions they took while performing their jobs.
And what's even more remarkable is that these cases are about emissions and sales numbers.
Over the years, there have been recalls involving safety defects that led to deaths. Companies were fined, but indictments of the individuals responsible never materialized.
There is no doubt that the Volkswagen diesel scandal has reset the bar all over the world. If the VW case is any indication, we may be looking at a different set of standards for automotive executives in the future.
A company being fined or a vehicle being recalled is quite different from executives facing jail time for their actions. And there are plenty of prosecutors who would gladly go after auto executives if they thought it was possible.
There will be plenty of discussion in the executive corridors of the world's auto companies about these developments.
Indeed, it's very serious. We are not sure yet what the outcome will be, but it is no longer business as usual.