When Volkswagen, maker of the humble Beetle, first found a home deep within the American psyche in the decades after World War II, it presented itself as an automotive brand apart. In a sea of chromium excess and Detroit tail-fin profligacy, the German carmaker stood for values like conservation, thrift, and modesty. Born of the austerity of pre- and postwar Europe, the company’s name meant simply “People’s Car.” But in that peculiarly American place where progressivism and puritanism meet out back in the parking lot at the mall, the Beetle’s perceived honesty and friendly minimalism placed it at the center of a powerful and enduring consumer movement, one that has bordered on religiosity. For a sense emerged of Volkswagen the company as fun, fair, and caring. Another century’s Apple, it captured the hearts and prized open the wallets of many a well-meaning, planetarily aware citizen, and did so through seven decades, into our own times. Not unrelatedly, VW has for the first time sold more cars than any other company in the world in 2015, passing General Motors and Toyota.
But then things changed—abruptly. On September 20, the fabled firm from Lower Saxony was forced to admit that it had misled its customers with its narrative of “clean” diesel cars. Indeed, Volkswagen had brazenly broken the law when it cooked up a super-sneaky software fix for its smaller cars to make it appear to Environmental Protection Agency emissions testers that the diesel-powered models sold by VW in the United States from 2009 to 2015—some 482,000 cars—were considerably less polluting than they actually were. A “defeat device” placed into the software of VW and Audi models with four-cylinder diesels—a hack only recently uncovered by a university lab in West Virginia while conducting independent tests—temporarily lowered the emission of regulated oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to acceptable limits. But the tweak had a sinister nature: The reduction happened only during that exceedingly rare moment—once in a car’s lifetime—when it might randomly undergo testing. For the rest of their service lives, however, these diesel cars might spew up to 40 times the legal limit of NOx, a compound implicated in the creation of ozone and smog and linked to asthma and emphysema.
One day after the company’s announcement that it had perpetrated this elaborate fraud, with millions shocked and appalled, Volkswagen revealed new depths to its perfidy. Catching the bad publicity wave head-on, VW announced that its official count of illegally programmed, overpolluting cars had actually increased 2,300 percent—from 482,000 to 11 million units, not confined to the United States but spread around the world. Conceding guilt, the carmaker announced that it had already earmarked 6.5 billion euros to fund future payouts related to the debacle. Then, cutting to the chase, VW offered that among its new legal representatives henceforth would be the American law firm Kirkland & Ellis, which recently worked as the defense team for BP following the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The Guardian has estimated that VW’s secret excess NOx emissions since 2008 could be as high as 1 million tons per year. Over all those years—a period when VW diesels were being aggressively marketed as the perfect vehicle for car owners looking to conserve oil and minimize their carbon footprint without sacrificing performance—these very same engines emitted as much NOx as all of Britain’s other auto, power, industrial, and agricultural sources combined. Few owners who’d purchased their Volkswagens for green-minded reasons appreciated the irony; they’re hopping mad, and so is the US government. But while Volkswagen’s shame is great—as is its liability—history suggests that the company’s demise is not imminent.