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The Volkswagen Scandal

by Jack Ewing

Pub Date: May 23rd, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-393-25450-1
Publisher: Norton

An exposé of the scandal that threatened to bring one of the world’s greatest automobile manufacturers to ruin.

By installing “defeat devices” and software designed to underreport automobile emissions, Volkswagen executives violated international laws and protocols. What surprises most about that decision, writes New York Times European economic correspondent Ewing, is that there was no clear motivation for it: the people responsible were not enriched by it, and indeed they took “enormous risk for such a modest gain” given that the unit savings were so small. Something larger than mere gain must have motivated them. But what? In this thoroughgoing account of the affair, the author ventures a few guesses. Mostly, though, this is straight reportage, a narrative that begins with the discovery of a crime by graduate students who proved that an ordinary, street-level Jetta “was producing way more nitrogen oxides than a modern long-haul diesel truck.” Ewing’s discussion can get deeply technical at times, given that “pollution control systems,” as he writes, “are complex rolling chemistry labs” and that sometimes all it takes is a stuck valve or a glitch in the car’s computer to ruin the performance of those systems. Still, those control systems were selling points for diesel cars, with one early VW line boasting “a particularly elegant combination of fuel injection, turbocharging, and electronics that could be produced cheaply enough for midrange cars.” What went wrong went badly wrong, and it was especially enraging to environmentally sensitive buyers who had bought Passats, Golfs, and other models precisely to do their part in saving the planet. Meanwhile, as the author reports in a narrative that soon turns to true crime, albeit of the white-collar variety, it was VW’s foot soldiers who took the fall, at least at first, despite the $15 billion fine imposed for violations of the Clean Air Act and other laws.

A shocking, sobering story—and, given the current anti-regulatory mood, one likely to be repeated.