- Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Let’s be blunt: Volkswagen’s business in the US was already terrible before we learned that the automaker had installed software designed to defeat emissions tests in almost 500,000 cars.
In the short-term, it’s now likely to get worse, even if only about a quarter of the vehicles that VW sells in the US have turbocharged-direct-injection diesel engines under the hood.
But one of the few good things we have been able to say about VW’s efforts to reestablish itself at the top of the US market – alongside GM, Ford, and Toyota – is that it got Americans driving diesels, which were supposed to be clean oil-burners, not the smokestacks of the 1970s.
TDIs were powerful and fuel-efficient, but evidently they were anything but clean. They were your father’s diesel, just in a smaller, sexier package complete with crafty algorithms that could fool the smog-check guy.
The vehicles affected by the government’s action are from the 2009 to 2015 model years, the period in which VW has been trying to reconnect with US car buyers.
The effort has been notably unsuccessful. If we’re generous, we can say VW added around a point of market share in the past six years, during which time the US auto market has decisively recovered from a nadir of a 10-million-annual new-vehicle sales pace to a 17 million pace, close to the pre-recession peak.
You might conclude that VW finally has an excuse to exit the US market, but that’s not a practical option for the automaker.
No way out
For starters, VW’s business in the US might be awful – this is excluding VW Group brands like Audi, which was affected by the emissions scandal, or Porsche, which wasn’t, because they’re doing well in America – but the North American market is pretty much the only good game in town these days. Europe is flat, Latin America is a mess, and China is slowing.
Don’t even think about Russia.
Additionally, it’s tough to be a serious global automotive brand if you aren’t doing business in the US. That’s why VW’s failure to make progress here is so glaring. This is the biggest carmaker in the world. Everywhere else it competes, but in the US it bottom-feeds.
In all likelihood, VW will simply have to take its punishment in the US. A mega fine of $18 billion has been speculated – by doing some quick math of the number of vehicles involved by the maximum per-car fine of $37,500 – but is improbable.
That said, a few hundred million or even a billion isn’t. There could be criminal charges on top of the civil ones, as the US Justice Department has opened an investigation.
Even so, VW is heavily invested in the US. It operates a plant in Tennessee and, depending on how its business goes here, could build more. The view in the auto industry is that VW is a big company with a lot of money and that it will make the US work even if it takes longer than planned.
- Screenshot via VW
Do the right thing
So far, the company has done that.
Daniel G. Hill, president of Ervin-Hill Strategy, a crisis-management firm in Washington, D.C., said it was important for VW to be transparent and aggressive in dealing with this issue.
“What you don’t do is try [to] contextualize the issue,” he said, “because that will ultimately backfire.”
Volkswagen has followed that script. Its CEO, Martin Winterkorn, took responsibility for the infraction in a statement and said the automaker would cooperate with the government and participate in its external investigation.
Winterkorn recently survived a boardroom battle at VW, but his future is anything but certain, especially if VW is found to have been cheating on emissions testing in the more diesel-friendly environs of Europe.
Hill said VW had a shot at reestablishing trust and credibility with consumers.
“Because this is the first incident, they get a bit of a pass,” he said. “But if there’s a pattern, it becomes more of an issue. The next one is problematic.”
An offense of this sort – VW effectively was caught lying about the performance of a technology that it has touted as somewhat game-changing – is the last VW needs in the US right now.
But it makes sense that the carmaker wanted to mask the real-world emissions of its diesel engines by using software that activated the full emissions-control system only during tests. The TDI engines were a solid beachhead for the company.
Additionally, they enabled VW to avoid bringing hybrids and electric cars to the US market.
“VW buyers did not get the performance and environmental impact that they paid for, and because of that VW owners are less likely to ignore this or see it as a small issue,” Jack Nerad, executive editor and analyst at Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, said in an emailed comment.
“Volkswagen owners are notably loyal and knowledgeable and that goes double for VW diesel buyers, so this amounts to a betrayal of their trust that they are less likely to forgive than if they had less emotional attachment to their car and their brand,” he added.
Will VW recover? As bad as this situation looks, it is actually mitigated by the automaker’s US market weakness. We’re not talking about a massive number of cars, given the number of model years covered. And the vehicles that are affected – sedans – are actually not those that VW should be selling, which are crossovers and SUVs.
VW could get a chance at a market reset here. So much for the TDI strategy – bring on some gas-powered vehicles that Americans want to buy. To a certain extent, VW has been making every effort to avoid competing in the US, selling diesels when few others are, avoiding hybrids, failing to make its existing SUV and crossover offerings compelling to buyers.
This scandal could bring that to an end.