Here's why I don't really care about VW DieselGate

In the wake of DieselGate, many people share some variation of this opinion about Volkswagen: THEY LIED ON PURPOSE! HOW CAN WE EVER TRUST THEM AGAIN? Well I’m here to tell you, this doesn’t surprise me in the least, and frankly doesn’t even lower my opinion of Volkswagen.

DISCLAIMER: Volkswagen wanted me to write this not-entirely-negative post about them so badly, they made their cars in such a way as to attract customers who I generally hate, which caused me to develop over many years a deeply-seated loathing for all VW products and their drivers. Even when I kinda like driving a particular VW car, I still hate it, because it’s a VW.

Advertisement

To distill DieselGate down to its absolute most basic idea, Volkswagen installed engine control software on its cars that:

  1. During conditions resembling an EPA test, makes the cars in which it is installed behave in a way that allows the cars to pass the EPA test.
  2. During conditions not resembling an EPA test, makes the cars in which it is installed behave in a way that is perhaps more desirable to the driver, but does not pass the EPA test.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that this violates some regulation or another that I don’t particularly feel like looking up. Which means that VW made a deliberate choice to do a thing that was later determined to have broken a law.

OH NO, A MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION DID SOMETHING THAT BROKE THE LAW, ON PURPOSE!

I’m here to tell you that megalocorporations like Volkswagen do not care at all about little things like ethics, morals, or laws. They do things that are ethically, morally, and legally questionable all the time! They are able to do these things and get away with them because they have gigantic teams of lawyers and accountants whose sole job is to answer this question:

“We are planning to do this (potentially questionable) thing. Will we get in trouble for doing it?”

Advertisement

Nobody at VW went rogue and secretly installed emissions-test-cheating software on their cars. Some higher-up person had to make a decision to implement the DieselGate software, and a team of engineers had to actually make the DieselGate software. At one or more steps along the way, someone probably said, “ok, let’s check with Legal about this.” The VW legal department probably reviewed the plan, and said “well, seems like technically you’re following the EPA regulations, go ahead.”

Advertisement

Frankly, this is what all companies do. Every company wants to make a product that its customers will like, as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and wants to spend as little time and money as possible on making it comply with all of the regulations they’re required to follow, while not messing up the product in the name of regulations so much that its customers will no longer like it. Companies just don’t like government regulations! They dislike regulations so much that one of the two main U.S. political parties has this as a core tenet of its platform:

Government spending and regulation must be reined in.

DieselGate isn’t even close to the first time a car company has tried to get around emissions or fuel economy regulations. Car companies try to get around emissions or fuel economy regulations (and plenty of other types of regulations too) all the time! That’s what car companies do!

Advertisement

Popular Mechanics has a handy list of some ways that car companies have skirted these kinds of regulations, but my favorite is GM’s skip shift feature.

For 1989, GM replaced the weird “4+3” manual transmission in the C4 Corvette with a ZF 6-speed manual. The only problem was, the new 6-speed cars did terribly on EPA fuel economy tests, and were going to be subject to a gas guzzler tax.

Advertisement

GM came up with a workaround called CAGS (Computer Aided Gear Selection). If you’re not driving particularly quickly in a CAGS-equipped car, when you try to shift out of 1st gear, a solenoid forces the manual shifter over to 4th gear for you. If you give it more gas in 1st, you can shift from 1st to 2nd or 3rd as you please.

While unsophisticated, this trick worked well enough to help the 1989 Corvette avoid a gas guzzler tax, and is in fact still present on manual transmission Corvettes (and other V8 GM cars) to this day! At first, GM was rather wink-wink nudge-nudge about CAGS. According to Popular Mechanics,

“The owner’s manual even had a picture of the solenoid, showing where the wiring to the computer was connected. The photograph was cleverly captioned to caution drivers not to disconnect this wire, or the skip-shift feature would no longer function.”

Advertisement

GM no longer publishes instructions for disabling their fuel economy cheat mode in their owners manuals, but the feature is still present on Corvettes. The activation window has gotten smaller as Corvettes have gotten more efficient, but it’s still there. Essentially, CAGS is a trick that:

  1. During conditions resembling an EPA test, makes the cars in which it is installed behave in a way that allows the cars to pass the EPA test.
  2. During conditions not resembling an EPA test, makes the cars in which it is installed behave in a way that is perhaps more desirable to the driver, but does not pass the EPA test.
Advertisement

Hmmm....that list seems familiar, yes? It should, because I copied and pasted it from the top of this post.

(Oh, and there are any number of cheap CAGS eliminators out there available for 20 bucks or less.)

Advertisement

The only difference between what VW did with DieselGate, and what GM does with CAGS, is the DieselGate software that restricts the car into EPA compliance is not active in any conditions that a typical driver might encounter. Of course, GM makes CAGS very easy to disable entirely, but GM isn’t the one doing the disabling. That’s the only line VW crossed.

Is this such a huge line that VW crossed that everyone should be all up in arms about how they’re such a naughty company? Honestly, to my mind, it’s just not a big deal. Because in the scheme of things, other car companies have made cars, deliberately or otherwise, that HAVE LITERALLY KILLED PEOPLE.

Advertisement

People hurt/killed by Ford Explorers with Firestone Tires: more than zero
People hurt/killed by faulty GM ignition switches: more than zero
People hurt/killed by Takata shrapnel-bags: more than zero
People hurt/killed by DieselGate: zero

Sure, these companies didn’t SET OUT to kill people with their cars, then run the idea by their legal departments who said “sounds good to us!” But the corporate decision-making that led to these deadly vehicles isn’t really all that different from VW’s decision-making behind DieselGate. To be so upset because OMG VW LIED TO US ALL, is in my mind, focusing on the wrong part of the problem.

Advertisement

Then again, I wasn’t going to buy a VW anyway.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter