The hidden background of the Volkswagen emissions-rigging scandal

There has to be more than meets the eye to the sudden mass pearl-clutching over Volkswagen’s recent exposure for installing software to selectively shut off emissions controls in its cars. The Two Minutes Hate that has been stirred up against VW by major news outlets is clearly an overreaction to one of the rare automaker scandals that does not involve serious injury or death. VW was dishonorable and fraudulent in this case, but its cars remain safer than those produced by some of its major competitors. General Motors killed people by installing faulty ignition switches, and Takata by producing faulty airbags. Volkswagen has not put any such deathtraps on the market, at least not recently. The emissions control override software it is being publicly humiliated for installing does not materially affect the operability or safety of its cars. I suspect that its positive effect on performance is exaggerated, if it has such an effect at all. Car enthusiasts believe all sorts of crazy shit about how government-mandated safety features, catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline, and the like absolutely ruin the performance of their beloved rides for no good reason. These beliefs tend to be informed much more by the selfish politics of private motoring as a birthright than by objective data or, God forbid, any sense of the commonweal.

That said, the environmental effects of VW’s emissions control override software are not nearly as dire as they’ve been made out to be. This is for a very simple reason: VW manufactures an unusually efficient fleet, especially in North America. Its corporate average fuel economy beats the living daylights out of the CAFE numbers for any of the Big Three US automakers. This means lower greenhouse gas emissions during operation and less environmental damage from oil drilling. Just watch: PR shitbirds and their useful idiot consumers will be out in force shortly to suggest that it’s more environmentally responsible to buy a new Escalade than to keep driving an old Jetta. Their competitors at Toyota have been making the same meretricious argument about the Prius for years. The core of Tesla’s marketing campaign is the elision of all environmental impacts from the production of its cars and the generation of the electricity needed to power them. Already disgruntled consumers have been trotted out on news programs to swear that they’ll never buy another Volkswagen because the company simply cannot be trusted. Never mind that it makes safe, exceptionally efficient cars, while the Big Three do everything in their power to propagandize Americans into piloting the Downeaster Alexa around town to run light errands.

There are real solutions to car exhaust pollution, but they’re too radical for Americans. What’s that, Mr. Willis? Get on the bus? Appallingly, even mass transit agencies have taken to advertising the low emissions of their fleets as a lure for new customers, instead of, say, manageable service frequencies. Their target demographic, one with unusually high formal educational attainment, is apparently too disembrained to realize that the bus is more efficient than their cars because, yes, Virginia, it’s a fucking bus. I guess the problem is that rice bowls get broken if these overeducated morons extract their heads from their asses. So do illusions of impeccable environmental rectitude. Poories ride the bus, and Bougie gets uncomfortable around the poors. Plus the bus says something prosaic on its side, like “22-Eastridge” and “Valley Transportation Authority,” instead of “26.2” in one of those insufferable European-style white ovals and “look at me I drive a Prius.” There’s less posturing to be done that way. Alternately, one could bike or walk, but that might get le slow and make one le hot or le cold.

Congestion pricing? Forget about it. It’s done wonders in London, and a number of American cities would benefit immensely from it, but it would interfere with Americans’ God-given right to drive on the Schuylkill Expressway at rush hour and then blame everyone but themselves for the tie-ups. It tends to raise privacy concerns when applied to surface streets, too, although these are often used as pretextual excuses by birthright motoring types. We love us some freie Fahrt für freie Bürger stateside every bit as much as the Germans do; it’s just that we express it differently, in part because maintaining Autobahn speeds on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is impossible when it isn’t downright crazy. Truly this is a country that supports public transportation for others.

Volkswagen’s conduct in the emissions rigging scandal is not singularly bad by industry standards. It doesn’t come close. So cui bono? The nutty sorts of environmentalists can get hard at the realization that they’re woke about air quality and good corporate citizenship, but they’re two-bit stakeholders in this game. Other automakers have an obvious interest in seeing VW smeared for this sort of fraud. It’s likely that some of them have used similar dirty tricks, but even if they have, they benefit for the time being from VW’s public humiliation. Their industry is one where perceptions of virtue matter much more than actual virtue, and Volkswagen’s shaming makes them look virtuous.

There’s a very real possibility of official corruption in the response to VW’s emissions-rigging. GM may well have gotten what it paid for while VW didn’t get what it didn’t buy from Congress. Remember, GM’s most recent scandal involves product defects that are directly and provably killing people, while VW’s involve, at worst, indirect threats to life and health from the operation of its vehicles in areas that already have poor air quality. These are not ethically equivalent scandals, but they’re being treated that way in mainstream news coverage. This is almost certainly not because ordinary Americans value the environment over human life, but because gatekeepers in the news business have an agenda to pursue and can get quick, easy ratings by hyping up this unusually innocuous act of corporate fraud. These are organizations with more to lose than to gain in the immediate term by exaggerating an air pollution scandal than by maintaining perspective. Think about how rarely they criticize the coal industry, which is filthy as hell. Look at how poorly they cover the US military and its intractably corrupt contractors. They’re propaganda organs.

And why would anyone expect probity from automakers, especially environmental probity? These are corporations that will wreck the environment, kill their customers with defective vehicles, and bribe officials to turn a blind eye to their malfeasance sooner than they’ll behave responsibly of their own accord. They have marketing departments. Don’t assume that these departments aren’t in touch with major newsrooms behind the scenes. We live in a Bernaysian society, and the first rule of Bernaysia is that no one talks about Bernaysia.

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