In defence of Volkswagen

Corporate Social Responsibility has matured and turned into a petulant teenager who hates everything.

The issue of Volkswagen is a case in point. Hysterical indignation assaults the company on all quarters, with the European Investment Bank even talking about recalling loans made for clean engine technology. Facebook-style outrage, it seems, has reached corporations and central governments, with Volkswagen itself rolling over in a shameful display of over humility.

But has the car firm really done anything wrong? *

Driving a very un-eco SUV across American desert

Driving a very un-eco SUV across American desert

I recently drove a 2016-model 3.0 litre BMW X5 4,500 miles around western and southern USA. This wonderful and decidedly un-eco machine had a switch offering three different driving modes: Sports, Comfort and Eco-Pro.

Sports mode featured a dangerous red-themed dashboard, racecar-style torque and power meters, tight suspension, delayed upshift and terrific power. The perfect mode for having fun, for LA traffic and for generally being an obnoxious BMW driver.

Eco-Pro mode – all blue lights, of course – was a drag, switching up through the gears at around 2,000rpm and flashing warning lights on heavy gas pedal and driving too fast, plus something “Eco” about the air conditioning which meant the temperature in the car was never quite right.

Sorry to say, Eco-Pro didn’t get a look… until I got pulled over by a state trooper in Texas, clocked at 100mph with a US$300 fine. Tail between my legs, I switched down to Cruise Control and Eco-Pro for a while.

Never mind how un-eco a fossil-fuelled SUV may be, driving in that mode did deliver insanely better mileage. The Eco-Odometer showed we were eking (no pun) an extra 40 miles or so between gas stops.

So, if it was my own car, and if I was taking it in for an emissions test, what mode would I engage for the test?

From dangerous to boring to dull - BMW X5 driving modes

From dangerous to boring to dull – BMW X5 driving modes

Is it wrong to put it in “Comfort” or “Eco Pro”, or set those as default start-up modes, when I know the car is about to be tested? As advanced as the engine might be, I don’t think it would pass an emissions test in Sports Mode and certainly not in real-life “me driving like an idiot around Los Angeles” mode.

Does that make the car, the carmaker or the car owner evil, or dirty, or dishonest? Is it “cheating” that we put our best foot forward during the emissions test? I don’t think so. The car operates within the law, which is to achieve certain standards during the test. Everybody behaves differently in exams, whether it’s exaggerating mirror-checking movements in a driving test, or putting on a suit for a job interview.

Ah, people say, but the car did this automatically to trick the system, without the owner even knowing. That’s a tricky one. But then, so much of the car is automatic: the car already has a near-invisible Automatic Braking System, invisible traction control, automatic headlights, windshield wipers and little lights which come on under the door handles when I get within 20 feet of the machine…. so if the car automatically switches mode to make my life as a driver easier and to comply with the law then surely that’s not such a terrible thing? I don’t tell it how much fuel to squirt in each cylinder or exactly how much torque to apply to the steering rack so why should I care how it behaves when being tested?

Indeed, if there was a switch called “Emissions Test Mode”, would it be unethical to engage it before an emissions test?

And if “Emissions Test Mode” was relabeled “Normal” and yet the car was a pig to drive in that mode, so everybody used “Sport” day-to-day, would there be similar ethical problems?

Yes, the Volkswagen diesels are dirtier in the real world than the test environment, but I would bet pretty much every car (gas, diesel or electric) on the road is dirtier in the real world than the test environment, secret software or not.

And that should be the take home from Volkswagen – not that the company is bad but the present system doesn’t genuinely serve the environment. It does its level best and judging by the air quality in southern USA, it’s done a pretty good job, but it relies too much on pollution source control and less on individual responsibility.

I can legally get myself Tesla P90D, set it into “ludicrous mode” and use – for free though a SuperCharger – half the power output of Hong Kong’s only onshore wind turbine to achieve 0-60 in 2.8 seconds. I wouldn’t want anyone to legislate against my ability to do this, yet any decent environmental system going forward needs to acknowledge that it happens.

 * [Ed note, February 2017] Since writing this in September 2015, some 340,000 VW owners have asked to sell their cars back to the company through a US$10 billion compensation programme, part of a US$14.7 billion settlement VW negotiated with the US government. Its share price today is back to 2012 levels, so clearly they did something wrong – but it seemed to me at the time that car owners getting on high horses about it was pretty hypocritical, hence this article.

About James Ockenden (223 Articles)
A writer covering international energy and power markets since 1996
%d bloggers like this: