A scandal in Wolfsburg

When Volkswagen admitted manipulating emissions data, the company broke a seventy-year-old bond with its customers.

Customers have found it hard to fathom that Volkswagen would have engaged in such cheating, writes Rieger [GETTY IMAGES]
Customers have found it hard to fathom that Volkswagen would have engaged in such cheating, writes Rieger [GETTY IMAGES]

“Das Auto”. All over the world, in recent years, readers, television audiences, and cinema fans have encountered these two German words, which translate to “the car”, as the memorable tagline of Volkswagen. The phrase does far more than invoke Volkswagen’s national identity: It latches onto associations of superior engineering that’s “made in Germany”. With its no-nonsense brevity and simplicity, “Das Auto” self-confidently suggests that Volkswagen crafts nothing less than the essence of what a car ought to be. And in the early 21st century, that includes a sense of environmental consciousness.

Carmaker Volkswagen under fire

In ad after ad since the 1980s, VW has extolled its ecological credentials. As it promised drivers exemplary mileage, ultra-low emissions, and zippy acceleration, the corporation expressly extended these claims to vehicles powered by the diesel engines that most drivers have traditionally connected with sluggish road handling, black smoke, and toxic smells. Observers wondering if all this was not too good to be true could soothe their conscience with the result of the emissions tests that adorned every ad. Consumers want to have their cake and eat it. VW owners could have their car and drive it.

Public trust

Beyond anger, incredulity has been a prominent feature of consumer reaction to the Volkswagen scandal.

Or so it seemed – until recently when the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed VW’s manipulation of emissions data. The following week, the corporation admitted that it had delivered no less than 11 million vehicles with polluting diesel engines – almost twice the number the VW company sold all over the world in 2013. Stocks took a dive, CEO Martin Winterkorn had to resign, and enraged car owners started filing class action lawsuits.

Beyond anger, incredulity has been a prominent feature of consumer reaction to the Volkswagen scandal. While most car owners had long sensed that emission tests yielded idealised lab data that could not be replicated on the road, VW went a step further: Present-day cars not only consist of metal and glass, but rely on millions of lines of computer codes to operate smoothly.

Volkswagen took advantage of this intangible, yet crucial component by including a routine in its software that altered the technical characteristics of the engine itself during tests. Customers and commentators have found it hard to fathom that, of all companies, Volkswagen would have engaged in such a flagrant form of cheating.

Related: Why Indian cars are not driven by safety concerns

That VW stands accused of having broken the public’s trust leaves the firm with a fundamental challenge: Cars are highly complex consumer items that establish complex relationships between machine and driver. Rather than as simply prosaic devices to get from point A to B, cars virtually always function simultaneously as social status symbols and as badges of individual identity. Buying a car is more than a weighty commercial decision; it involves a profound degree of personal trust in the product. Customers who viewed themselves as ecologically responsible and opted for one of VW’s supposedly low-emission diesel vehicles have now morphed into polluters – just about the worst transformation one can experience in the Western world right now.

National institution

That customers credited VW with the ability to create a green diesel vehicle in the first place reflects the corporation’s long-standing reputation for quality and reliability. Germans last week found themselves flabbergasted by the behaviour of a corporation that they regard as an unshakable national institution. VW’s aura of probity and trustworthiness dates back to the 1950s, when the legendary Beetle mass-motorised the federal republic. After the catastrophes of the first half of the German 20th century, the small, sturdy and dependable vehicle came to embody the hope that the post-war order – with its appealing affluence – possessed the same staying power as the car itself. The Beetle symbolised stability. When an ad from the early 1960s attributed VW’s spectacular Beetle sales to the vehicle’s ability to “run and run and run”, the phrase quickly entered everyday speech. Nothing encapsulates consternation in Germany more poignantly than last week’s headline chosen by the influential weekly, Die Zeit: “It stinks and stinks and stinks.”

In the US, Volkswagen’s deception has aroused a degree of public attention out of proportion with its minuscule US market share of two to three percent. The scandal’s resonance in the US possesses an historical dimension. Countless middle-class Americans, now in their 50s and 60s, still link the company with the 1950s and 1960s, when the Beetle became the country’s most successful small car. At the time, the US’ roads were dominated by large American vehicles. Next to Detroit’s baroque creations, the diminutive “bug” emerged as the car of choice for smart drivers. Over the years, VW worked hard to market its products as commodities for critical consumers with an eye for reasonable products. That contract has been rendered null and void.

It will be hard for Volkswagen to repair the damage to its brand. To be sure, the emissions affair is not the only notable scandal to have hit the company recently. A decade ago, high-profile personnel manager Peter Hartz had to leave the company in shame after revelations that he had bribed VW’s trade union representatives. Bouncing back from those corruption charges proved relatively easy since the damage was internal. This, of course, is not the case now. To gain back customers’ trust, Volkswagen will need to re-engineer substantial parts of its corporate culture to assure the public that new, robust structures are in place to prevent future fraud. At the corporate headquarters in Wolfsburg, executives are probably pondering VW’s previous tagline: “Drivers Wanted.”

Bernhard Rieger is a Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London. His most recent book is The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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