For VW, it's not the crime, it's the coverup
I am not in the business of weighing sins, but I have noticed -- over the last year as the VW diesel emissions scandal has unfolded -- that all automotive sins are not created equal.
Now I think I know why.
Consider for a moment what are arguably the three largest automotive scandals in recent years: General Motors’ faulty ignition switches, Takata’s explosive airbag inflators and Volkswagen Group’s purposeful cheating on diesel emissions standards.
If emotional reckoning were a simple matter of plusses and minuses, weighing these three scandals would be relatively easy. There are verifiable consumer deaths that were caused either directly or indirectly by the actions of executives at GM and Takata as they sought to keep costs down and their products in the market. People died who didn’t deserve to die, and that’s pretty reprehensible, no matter how you cut it.
As for VW, the extent of the environmental impact of its transgressions is less well-known, and part of a broader polluting of the atmosphere and planet that doesn’t respect borders or the laws of individual nations. Is it bad? Yes, certainly. Yet for many, the actions of VW executives in some ways are even more reprehensible than those of individuals with GM or Takata.
But why is that?
My guess is that it has less to do with the nature of the crime than it does with the very human nature of both empathy and forgiveness.
As human beings, I think we are far more likely to forgive a person whose transgression is done in error or out of fear than we are to forgive or empathize with a miscreant who acts willfully and deceitfully.
In other words, it’s the Watergate adage, come to the auto industry: It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.
In some ways, GM’s ignition switch scandal and the Takata airbag inflator imbroglio had their own degrees of coverup, to be certain. Had the known defective parts been disclosed earlier, certainly some of those killed would be alive today. But as of right now, those defects are widely known, and they’re being dealt with, while the companies and individuals have paid -- and are likely to continue to pay -- a heavy price for their missteps.
Yet, VW’s actions, at a minimum, set back consumer acceptance of diesel technology from any automaker by years, if not decades. Its actions also certainly harmed the environment more than would have occurred if its vehicles complied with emissions regulations.
In many ways, VW still seems neither penitent or particularly convinced that what it did was wrong.
Maybe that’s why its sins still look so egregious.