The day I went to pick up my new Volkswagen Jetta TDI in March 2009, the salesman had me sit in the driver’s seat while he introduced the car’s various features. The engine was softly idling, and as I reached to shut it off, he told me not to bother. The minimal amount of fuel this car burned — sipped, in the automotive argot — was its great selling point. That, and the almost complete removal of hazardous exhaust that had made earlier diesel vehicles notorious.
This was that new thing in the world, “clean diesel,” using ingenious German technology to keep nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions out of kids’ lungs, and low enough to meet even California’s stringent pollution standards. A committee of jurors, including the executive director of the Sierra Club and the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, had just called it the “Green Car of the Year.” A review in this newspaper described the Jetta TDI, persuasively, as “easy on money, fuel and the planet.”
It was quiet, too. The salesman told me to rev the engine, to hear just how quiet, and I hesitated. I am not an engine revver by nature. I’d been writing articles and giving talks about the importance of cutting emissions and reducing our individual carbon footprints, or what I thought of, a little fatuously, as “the Kyoto Protocol at home.” I wondered if the salesman took some small pleasure from inflicting engine-revving torture on tiresome environmentally minded customers. Or maybe he was annoyed that I had not gone for any of the usual dealer add-ons. So throw the man a bone: I revved.
Then I drove off the lot and fell almost instantly in love. The Jetta TDI was fun to drive, unlike the plodding family Volvo it replaced. I fell particularly for what I thought of as “the number.” VW designers had cleverly placed the miles per gallon indicator front and center in the dashboard where other cars put the speedometer. On the highway, I could see that number changing moment by moment as I depressed the accelerator or shifted gears, and I adjusted my driving accordingly. The number averaged somewhere in the mid-40s on the drive home, at one point hitting 187 miles per gallon. It was like owning a Prius in disguise, without the spongy brakes or the self-righteous appearance of scolding the gas-guzzlers of the world. Coming into the driveway, I was doing my best “wah-wah” in roughly the manner of Ronny and the Daytonas singing “G.T.O.”
My affection for my sweet little Jetta continued unabated, despite several costly mechanical failures, until last weekend. That’s when I discovered, along with the rest of the world, that the Volkswagen’s celebrated German technology was in fact a huge fraud designed to dupe regulators and cheat the owners of 11 million vehicles. Every TDI contained engine management software designed to detect when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing, based on telltale indicators in steering wheel position, acceleration, engine run time and even atmospheric pressure. Then, and only then, would the vehicle’s full emissions control system kick into gear. Running the emissions controls the rest of the time would apparently have made the TDI sluggish, and with a “miles per gallon” number that looked a lot more ordinary. Just another gray car of the year.
It occurred to me that the only time my sweet little TDI had delivered the promised “clean diesel” performance was that day I sat in the dealer’s parking lot haplessly revving the engine. Otherwise, it operated in full clunker mode, spewing up to 40 times the NOx allowed by law.
As it happens, I had met the people who were running Volkswagen and its sister company Audi at about the time my car was being designed, and I liked them. They paid me handsomely to give a talk, based on one of my books, describing what the natural world can teach us about workplace and customer behaviors. Even chimpanzees, I told them, spend only about 5 percent of the workday being rotten to one another — and 15 or 20 percent grooming. But maybe I didn’t make my point clearly enough. Afterward, company executives came up to tell macho tales of aggressive maneuvering in the conference room at headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany: “It’s like the Serengeti,” one said. “The round table just makes it easier for everybody to see the kill.”
Perhaps because of that connection, I was a willing fool. But so were federal regulators, various environmental groups and this newspaper. We wanted to believe in the myth of the “green car,” and thus accepted corporate marketing numbers at face value. Those of us who purchased the Jetta TGTBT (too good to be true) are now stuck with vehicles we cannot drive without making other people our victims. That’s because the copious NOx and hydrocarbons they emit become low-level ozone pollution. Ozone clings over urbanized areas — notably the Boston-to-Washington corridor and much of California — and the deaths it causes are a lot more real than the “kills” taking place around a Volkswagen conference table. Human-caused ozone pollution inflames and injures lungs, aggravates cardiovascular disorders, and contributes to the 500,000 or so asthma hospitalizations every year, many of them among children under 15. According to a 2013 study in the journal Environmental Research Letters, it also kills about 470,000 people a year worldwide.
I stayed awake much of Monday night fretting about this, and about a poisonous stew of corporate scandals — the news that Johnson & Johnson, my old paragon of corporate decency, had deliberately promoted off-label sales of a drug that caused old people to suffer strokes, and teenage boys to develop breasts; the smart-aleck investor who jacked up the price of a 62-year-old drug by 4,000 percent; Takata’s exploding airbags; G.M.’s deadly ignition switches; and of course the guy who knowingly sold tainted peanut butter that killed nine people and sickened hundreds.
In the wake of the federal government’s repeated failures to adequately penalize past corporate criminals, one publication suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency would now “want to put Volkswagen’s rotting head on a pike on the walls of the town.” Unfortunately, the Clean Air Act does not provide for that penalty, or any criminal penalties for pollution from mobile sources, according to Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.” But federal prosecution for fraudulent marketing and lying to the government are both possible, and state attorneys general are free to pursue criminal charges for wrongful death and other infractions.
This week’s sentencing of the chief executive of Peanut Corporation of America to 28 years in prison makes a promising start. It should happen now at a major corporation like Volkswagen, and not just for one scapegoat, but for everybody who signed off on this mess. As Ms. Steinzor put it, “Nobody ever does anything in a big company like this by his lonesome.”
For the rest of us, we need to acknowledge that some of our favorite phrases — “clean diesel,” “green car” and apparently also “corporate responsibility” — are just a contradiction in terms. But that shouldn’t let us off the hook either. Every time we complacently accept some company’s green-scamming promises, we allow ourselves to become the gullible partners in crimes against one another, and the Earth. And that makes us all just a nation of willing fools.
Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers, and a contributing opinion writer.