Monday, September 28, 2015

Volkswagen: Please Say It Ain't So, Beetle!

Betrügen (German, noun) 1. to cheat, deceive, defraud, cheat on, fool, or swindle

The very first automobile I remember riding in as a kid was a jet black 1963 squat and pug shaped Volkswagen Beetle. I was a toddler, maybe a little older. The Beetle was our sole family car and all five of us--Mom, Dad, big sister Lynne, big brother Ed and me--we'd pile into that vehicle to see the world. My place in that quirky car was a tiny crawl space behind the back seat, just above the engine.  I'd sit cross-legged back there, the hum of the motor underneath me, the blue sky above. 

I loved that car, our little VW. 

The Beetle then was an unusual transportation choice.  It was weird looking, foreign. Neighbors drove over sized gas guzzling American cars: sleek Chevrolets, muscled up Fords, lanky Lincolns. But we were VW acolytes. In college I graduated to my roommate Rich's canary yellow two door VW Rabbit: tinny and uncomfortable, but perfect for pizza runs and out of town keg parties. ROAD TRIP! Brother Ed drove a VW too, a bus, top heavy and clunky. One night while driving it, I took a corner too hard and flipped it on its side.  I was ok. The van was totaled.

Volkswagen.  Since first being introduced to the American car market in 1949, VW and its very original vehicles have found their way into the heart of many American drivers. I'll bet you've got a VW story.

So I felt kind of sad last week when I heard that Volkswagen was caught committing one of the largest acts of consumer fraud in the history of car manufacturing and sales. Since 2009, VW intentionally hacked its own engine software so 11 million of its diesel vehicles could fool anti-pollution emission tests and be certified as "clean" vehicles. 

Say it isn't so, VW.

Yes, I know in our oh so cynical world, we're not supposed to be surprised or hurt by such revelations of human deceit. VW is not the first car company to cheat and sell cars that are dangerous or bad for the environment. General Motors knowingly sold cars with faulty ignition switches that led to injuries and deaths. In the nineteen seventies, Ford infamously sold Pintos with gas tanks that exploded on impact, in rear collisions. 

There will always be a few companies who push the ethical envelope, all to make more money.  There will always be humans in positions of power and responsibility who choose to cheat.  Athletes who cross the line, push the rule book to its limit and then some. Politicians who shade the truth for a vote. Spouses and lovers who break the bonds of relational fidelity.     

The temptation to cheat is a part of who we are as flawed and fallen human beings, Adam and Eve's original sin continually circling back into our shared life as a species.  There will always be lots of "good" reasons to cheat. We gain an edge over our opponent.  We  fudge the figures on our tax returns and pay less. We deceive by omission or commission, fib out loud or just stay mum.  We cheat because every one else cheats, right?

But the good news is that honest government environmental protection agencies and tenacious private watchdog groups kept at VW for more than two years, until the company finally admitted the truth. The good news is that for all our world weariness in the face of institutions and people who lie to us, we are still outraged by VW's bald faced deception. We are still angry that a brand we trusted and even loved, let us down. The good news is that VW is paying the price for its cheating: its CEO is gone, its stock price has gone through the floor and its future as a company is far from certain.

So maybe, sometimes, the good guys, the honest guys, the ones who choose not to cheat and instead play by the rules: they do finally win in the end.   

And yes, I still love that Beetle.   


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