“Dieselgate” is back in the news thanks to a new Netflix documentary that among other things depicts how Volkswagen pumped diesel exhaust into small see-through chambers to test the effects of noxious diesel gases on monkeys. I am not making this up.
The horrific visuals of choking monkeys in Alex Gibney’s “Hard NOx” – part of a new documentary series entitled Dirty Money — are gut-wrenching. VW, we’re told, commissioned the tests in a bogus gambit designed to demonstrate that so-called “clean” diesels were a gift to humanity – affordable and “green.” Complete nonsense, of course. Humans were considered for the tests, by the way.
Moreover, Gibney ties the gassing of monkeys to Adolph Hitler, whose support of the People’s Car in the 1930s is well documented. In the film, attorney Michael Melkersen, who is acting for about 300 plaintiffs in civil suits against VW, says of the gassing: “Obviously one cannot help but think back throughout history to another series of events involving people being gassed.” Oh, my.
VW’s U.S. unit is arguing that the “inflammatory” comments by Melkersen will prejudice the jury in a trial set to start Feb. 26 and is seeking a six-month delay. We’ll see how this plays out. We know this: that trial is the first of about 2,000 suits representing those who opted out of a multibillion-dollar collective U.S. settlement in 2016 for reparation in the emissions scandal.
Ah, the scandal.
To review: for many years, the VW Group perpetrated a global fraud on some 11 million customers. VW had installed a so-called “defeat” device that allowed its diesels to cheat emissions tests so that it could claim vehicles like the Jetta with a small diesel were a fair and clean alternative to hybrids like Toyota’s Prius. That also was nonsense.
So far, just two minor VW executives in the U.S. have gone to jail for this fraud (one sentenced to seven years, the other 40 months). To date, VW has incurred upwards of $30 billion (US) in varies penalties and settlements in North American, Canada included. Among the costs to VW in the U.S.: a $2.8 billion criminal penalty negotiated as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in January 2017.
In Canada, just last month VW came to an agreement to resolve Dieselgate. VW Canada will make cash payments and other benefits to eligible 3.0-litre diesel owners and lessees, for a total value of up to $290.5 million. VW also agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty. That all comes on the heels of the larger settlement announced last year to compensate owners of 2.0-litre diesels (https://www.vwcanadasettlement.ca/en).
Nothing in the Canadians settlements addresses the millions of Canadians who inhaled excessive diesel fumes from vehicles equipped with the cheating device. And because the Canadian government has a cozy relationship with automakers in general, no further fines or charges are likely to emerge here.
Indeed, no VW Canada official has faced or is likely to face criminal charges for defrauding Canadians and excessively polluting our air. We have not been well served by government here.
But in South Korea, it’s a different story. There, VW has paid record fines and eight local VW and Audi officials have been charged criminally. One is now serving an 18-month prison term.
What’s missing from this picture is any sort of justice at all in Germany and Europe. VW has not offered nor given compensation to a single customer. No criminal or administrative fines or penalties have been imposed in Germany or Europe, either. None of the key decision-makers based in Germany have been charged by German or European authorities.
Perhaps there will be more to this story, yet. Perhaps German or European authorities will act to defend the rights of the public and consumers. Perhaps the many obstacles to successful civil suits in Germany will be overcome. Perhaps the Government of Lower Saxony will divest itself of its 20 per cent stake in VW and end what is clearly a conflict of interest – a government policing its own corporate interests. Perhaps.
What shocks me most of all about Dieselgate is not the lax global oversight of VW, nor the poisoned monkeys. What shocks me most is how little the general public seems to care about the damage done by a huge global automaker. Where is the outrage over European authorities who have failed to act to punish the company? Why do so few care that senior executives who almost certainly were aware of the ongoing fraud have not been charged?
As for the broader public, well, consider VW’s sales. Even as this scandal was unfolding in all its lurid detail last year, the VW Group and its 11 subsidiary brands – including Porsche and Audi — were posting record sales. In 2017, VW Group sold 10.7 million vehicles, a 4.3 percent increase on the previous year and enough to make VW the largest carmaker by sales in the world. Why are consumers around the world so forgiving?
Justice has yet to be fully served, and seen to be served, in the Dieselgate scandal and that is perhaps the biggest scandal of all.