Volkswagen’s diesel fraud euphemism: It’s an “irregularity.”

volkswagenVolkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is gone. But on his way out the door, he described the company’s massive, deliberate fraud on his customers and the environment as an “irregularity.” That’s bullshit.

Here’s what happened: Volkswagen jiggered the software in 11 million of its diesel cars to conceal how much they polluted. “Clean Diesel” is a pillar of Volkswagen’s marketing. (My link is to a cached copy; for some reason, the original Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” page is no longer visible.)

Here’s an English translation of the video statement from Winterkorn, made Tuesday before he resigned under pressure. Bold italic indicates questionable terms and passive voice; the text in brackets is my commentary:

The irregularities that have been found in our Group’s diesel engines go against everything Volkswagen stands for. [You told 11 million people they were buying a clean car, when they were actually spreading pollution, and didn’t fess up until the EPA forced you to; your passive language conceals who found the problem. Prof. Dr. Winterkorn, that’s not an “irregularity,” that’s a lie, a fraud, and a coverup.]

At present we do not yet have all the answers to all the questions. But we are working hard to find out exactly what happened. To do that, we are putting everything on the table, as quickly, thoroughly and transparently as possible. And we continue to cooperate closely with the relevant government organizations and authorities. This quick and full clarification has the highest priority. We owe that to our customers, our employees and the public.  [These are strong statements, but the qualitative words like hard, quickly, and closely don’t actually mean anything.]

Manipulation and Volkswagen – that must never be allowed to happen again. [As strong as this sounds, it’s a passive statement with no actor. There’s no indication of who won’t let it happen again, and who will be responsible if it does.]

Millions of people all over the world trust our brands, our cars and our technologies. I am deeply sorry that we have broken this trust. I would like to make a formal apology to our customers, to the authorities and to the general public for this misconduct. We will do everything necessary to reverse the damage. And we will do everything necessary to win back trust – step by step. [This is a sincere apology — for the company. Winterkorn takes no personal responsibility until the next day, when he resigns.]

In our Group, more than 600,000 people work to build the best cars for our customers. I would like to say to our employees: I know just how much dedication, how much true sincerity you bring to your work day after day. Therefore, it would be wrong to cast general suspicion on the honest, hard work of 600,000 people because of the mistakes made by only a few. Our team simply does not deserve that. [“Most people who work here are honest” is an obvious statement that begs us to wonder who isn’t. A fraud this big requires more than a “few” people to pull off. This may cheer up the employees, but it’s not fair to the customers. ]

That is why we are asking for trust as we move forward: We will get to the bottom of this. We are working very hard on the necessary technical solutions. And we will do everything we can to avert damage to our customers and employees. I give you my word: we will do all of this with the greatest possible openness and transparency.

This is actually better — more honest — than most CEO apologies. Of course, Winterkorn resigned the day after he made it, making his personal assurance worthless. Here’s the key bit from his resignation, with the questionable bits highlighted:

As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part.

I’m not quite done. This fraud is worse because of what Volkswagen promised its customers: clean, green cars. That’s obvious from the Volkswagen corporate site (which, as I write this, is still working and full of eco-cheeriness).  While VW’s Das blog hasn’t had an update since January, there’s nothing but happy news in the news section, where the latest item about a Dow Jones sustainability study includes this gem:

A glance at the individual results [of the study] reveals that Volkswagen operates most sustainably among the car makers in the areas of codes of conduct, compliance and anti-corruption as well as innovation management, climate strategy and lifecycle analysis.

And this under “environment” on the corporate site:

At Volkswagen, responsibility for the environment means producing clean cars in clean factories. This sounds simple, but as so often it is the simplest targets which involve highly complex operations. And what do we actually mean by a ‘clean car’?

Good question. VW engineered a car that would appear to be clean when tested, but was actually dirty the rest of the time. Is that what they mean by “the simplest targets which involve highly complex operations?” Lying is always more complex to engineer than the truth.

Volkswagen is going to have redo the numbers on their emissions page. In fact, they’re going to have to redo a whole lot more than that. It’s going to take a long time to dig out from this one.

Photo: Coloribus Advertising Archive

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    1. Horn’s remarks appear to be a lot more forthright. According to this article, here’s a quote:

      Our company was dishonest with the EPA, and the California air resources board and with all of you, and in my German words: we have totally screwed up.

      “We must fix the cars to prevent this from ever happening again and we have to make this right. This kind of behaviour is totally inconsistent with our qualities.

      “We are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust. We will pay what we have to pay.”

      This is still vague about what “we” will do, but it does not attempt to evade blame. So yes, a step in a positive direction.