Business·Analysis

VW's personal betrayal a sad lesson in business morality: Don Pittis

A lifelong Volkwagen driver has his illusions shattered. For Don Pittis, who currently drives one of the VW TDI models facing recall, it's a stark reminder why deregulation is a great idea that doesn't work.

Volkswagen reminds us why profit-motivated companies need tight regulation

In 2009, Don Pittis and his family bought a brand new VW TDI wagon because of its fuel-efficient green credentials. Now the car is an environmental embarrassment. (Don Pittis/CBC)

The first car I ever bought was a Volkswagen. A person who picked me up hitchhiking offered it to me for $200, and I drove it proudly for years. I drive a Volkswagen now. But suddenly the fun's gone out of it.

When I look back, I realize that until this week, I must have been a Volkswagen person. And the news that the German automaker deliberately cheated on environmental standards feels like a personal betrayal.

Perhaps even worse, it makes me despair about corporate morality in general. A company I have always thought of as being among the most responsible corporate citizens appears to have intentionally cheated not only public environmental laws but all the other car companies that thought they were working from a common set of rules. It cheated me.

I've driven lots of other cars over the years, including a reliable little Ford that took me back and forth from Oxford to London when I lived in England. But when I look back, Volkswagens have been a big part of my life.

My first bug

One of my earliest automobile memories was of a VW Beetle, or a bug, as we called it, parked behind the big grey sedan with rounded fenders that sat in our Toronto driveway. As I was growing up, my family drove a succession of Volkswagen station wagons, although I remember the last one being in the garage a lot. The new-fangled electronic fuel injection took the blame.

The car I bought as a teenager, also a bug, cost me next to nothing to fix. It was the old pre-electronic kind and with the aid of a book called A Manual for the Compleat Idiot I repaired the carburetor, tuned the fuel mixture with a screw driver, replaced the muffler and windshield and kept the little beast running through my first years of university.

Volkswagen went through a bad patch after that. A friend who drove a Passat warned us not to go near them. But when our Suzuki wagon died, we began looking for a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly car that would suit our needs.

We're not green fanatics. After all, we still drive. But we do believe in reducing our environmental footprint. We are also willing to spend a little extra to encourage carmakers who go the extra kilometre to develop green technology.

Despite our friends' warning, we decided VW had learned its lesson on customer satisfaction and so splashed out on a brand new 2009 TDI wagon. And for the first six years we've driven it contentedly.

It's been reliable. There is little sign of rust. The engine is powerful and quiet. On long trips to Thunder Bay, Saskatchewan and Quebec, the car has been a fuel sipper, using between four and five litres per 100 kilometres.

Driving a lie

"It's 'clean diesel,' German engineering," I would boast. "Not the old smoky kind." 

And all the while, it wasn't true.

What an embarrassment. Now I feel like I should put a bag over my head when I get back behind the wheel.

I've always thought of Volkswagen as a company different from others. It pays its workers well, encouraging union membership. It spends big money on research and development, with a stream of innovations, including its XL1 hybrid that uses a single litre of fuel per 100 kilometres. 

This outrageous environmental cheat, created specifically and intentionally to game the machine that tests for emissions, cannot be the work of a rogue engineer. The court investigation will reveal more, but it sounds like a corporate strategy to purposely set aside legality, morality and integrity in favour of profit.

Volkswagen is a very rich and powerful company that could have done things differently. It reminds you of the wealthy politician or business person who accepts bribes or puts their fingers in the till just to get a little bit richer. In many ways it is hard to understand.

VW has undermined its own reputation. Presumably, like those politicians and business people, the company assumed it would never be caught. But Volkswagen has provided us with a useful reminder of the forces driving companies of all sorts, and the dangers of deregulation.

It is a reminder of the huge pressure companies are under to keep their profits growing. It tells us that sometimes, even companies that depend on their good name will lie and cheat to increase the bottom line. Especially when they know their share price will bounce back in a few years once people have forgotten the scandal.

It says that all the glossy advertising filled with promises may well be no more than a sucker play and without governments and universities and non-business watchdogs on the lookout for cheats, sometimes, even the most respectable businesses are willing to take you for a ride.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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