Opinion: Volkswagen’s failure

September 24, 2015 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
It went through the press like a thunderstorm: Volkswagen installed a software in its diesel engine controllers that detected when the car was under test. In such situations it reduced the harmful exhaust to the legal limit; otherwise it blew untenable many exhaust fumes into the air. The trick clearly was applied to circumvent the environmental legislation in the USA and other countries. Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was forced to step back – but which effects will this revelation have?

It’s a shame for the German automotive industry that a honourable company like Volkswagen resorts to such means to better its position in the competition. There could be no other solution for Mr. Winterkorn than to step back. There is reason to fear that this dirty little trick has the potential to substantially damage the standing of the Volkswagen group, the diesel technology and the German automotive industry as a whole.
The damage obviously includes Audi as Volkswagen’s nobler sister, simply for the reason that Audi uses the same engines. The same holds true to the other members of the Volkswagen group, SEAT and Skoda. As far as I know, Audi already admitted that they used the same software. Porsche is in a different position. First because they only joined the VW group in 2009 while the technology in question was developed before 2005. Porsche never used these engines, and the diesel technology has only a subordinated significance for Porsche with its roots deeply in the sports car business.
The move also damages the credibility of the diesel technology across all manufacturers. While well established in Europe as a very economic and lasting type of engine, in the US the diesel technology always fought an uphill battle. I believe the reason for the distant attitude of the American customers towards the diesel technology was not due to the exhaust behaviour of these cars, but the current scandal is grist to the mill of the adversaries. Their impression must be that apparently the technology is difficult to handle in terms of eco-friendliness, and that it takes many engineering efforts to get the exhaust into the legal limits. While I still believe diesel is environmentally friendly, the simple fact that Volkswagen believed they needed such a shabby trick hints that it really takes more efforts to tame a diesel than a gasoline engine.  
And there is another open question: How can it be that a rock-solid engineering company like Volkswagen is unable to achieve the correct exhaust gas limits if their competitors can? Are Daimler, BMW or Opel engineers better per se? I don’t believe so. In particular not because the German auto industry has, despite all competition, somewhat of a family, every member knows pretty well what the other one does. So if the competitors get their diesel values right, is this because their engineers and engines are so much better than Volkswagen’s? Or - horrible idea - did they perhaps use similar means? Daimler’s Zetsche already said they did not, and Zetsche seems to me like a honest man. But Winterkorn seemed trustable too, until very recently. But potential car buyers across the world will ask themselves the same question. And this is the real damage: The customer’s confidence is annihilated. This is a much bigger damage than any penalty Volkswagen may have to pay.