I loved VWs. This is hard for someone who is concerned about the environment to admit, but I did.
The love affair started with a 1971 transporter van with eight seats; I bought it in 1983 for $1,700 the week after graduating from college, and then lovingly sewed curtains and built a bed to convert it into a camper. The simplicity and functional yet funky design of the thing was infectious. Repair manuals like “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” sported hippie art and made working on it simple and relatively satisfying. A silver paint job and that thing was ready to cruise, albeit slowly.
A few years later I sold that van and bought a 1977 pop-top bus that had a cook stove, sink, and fridge. With that and a Porsche “pancake” engine in the back, it was like driving an extremely loud house around. All these cars were freezing cold to drive in Ohio: the road salt rotted the heat exchangers, and we learned to bundle up and even hang a blanket between the front seats and the rest of the van. The wipers and the squirter were notoriously unreliable.
Having a van, I learned, could be a liability. When I got to grad school everyone wanted me to help them move. After one season of that, I sold it and bought the smallest, cheapest Datsun I could find.
But then I went to do dissertation research deep in the Brazilian Amazon, and bought a 1976 VW Beetle. “Quema bundas” they were called there, or “burnt butts,” for the way the engines would overheat in the back of the car. That thing was unreliable, as the engine would die without warning miles from civilization. Once it died on the ramp getting off of a huge ferryboat packed with logging trucks and 18-wheelers loaded with supplies for that booming frontier in 1989. The boatload of truckers began to blast their horns, which did not help the engine start, until a handful of young men appeared to push me off the boat and over to the side on the riverbank. The trucks barreled up the bank and off to the boomtowns.
A silence descended and everyone was gone, until I found a 13-year-old, who opened the Beetle’s rear hood and diagnosed the problem instantly. He sucked on the fuel line, spat out some gas, and stuck the line back in. The engine started instantly, and ran fine for weeks—until the next time, when I finally resolved to sell it and just ride the bus, which seemed a lot safer on a lawless frontier. But the fact was that anyone could know how to fix these elegantly simple machines.
Back home, my wife bought a VW Golf built in that ill-fated assembly plant in Pennsylvania, which only operated for two years before being shut down due to terrible quality issues. Soon the doors wouldn’t open, the windows jammed, and the electronics just failed. But the fahrvergnugen still made it fun to drive.
Then six years ago we got a 2009 diesel Jetta, a fine piece of German craftsmanship, which had it all: great looks, 42 miles per gallon, and truly zippy performance. After driving underpowered gas sippers, I was pleasantly stunned at the torque that thing could deliver. And all with a clean conscience.
Or so we thought.
This weekend we learned that VW built at least 11 million diesel cars with software that turned the emissions control devices on only during emissions testing. The rest of the time our cars were dumping 10 to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide, pollutants that are extremely irritating to human lungs and that combine with other pollutants to create ozone and smog. The Guardian cited figures in the U.K. tying diesel pollution to thousands of premature deaths there. They also describe a regulatory system manipulated by auto manufacturers.
But here in the U.S., diesels are just 3 percent of the fleet, so fewer people died. Still, this is a staggering deception of all of us: consumers who bought these machines, the public generally, our government, and everyone up and down the VW supply chain. A lot of people are now losing a lot of money—shareholders certainly, but perhaps none more than those owning VW dealerships.
How do we look at Volkswagens now? As my wife put it, “We were duped. If we had known this we would have bought a Prius.” As for me, my lifetime fascination with these German driving machines may not end, but I will probably never buy another (and I was considering a diesel Jetta, a wagon, also rated at an impressive 42 miles per gallon).
Diesels can be seen as potentially better than hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles from the standpoint of life-cycle impacts, since they do not require the mining and processing and the weight of all the metals that go into a huge battery. Europe adopted them to fight climate change, influenced in part by lobbying from the car and truck makers, but this whole scandal has sent shock waves through the industry.
This whole approach to seeking emissions reductions by switching to diesel is now being questioned, as is the ability of governmental agencies to monitor and regulate pollution. This wasn’t just another case like the Chevy Nova, where dangerous cars were knowingly sold. Much as we love the great design and supposed green credentials of VWs, we learned that even the most beloved automakers cannot be trusted to act in good faith with the public health and the environment.
For many observers, the VW scandal undermines their trust in corporations, and in our whole system of governance. We may look back and see this was a turning point in the relationship of corporations with governments, in our current strain of capitalism, our so-called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism promotes very limited state involvement, and the incentivizing of private solutions to all kinds of problems, including pollution, public health, and climate change.
Is the love affair over? I can’t say for sure, but like a lover who’s discovered they’ve been cheated on, I will never look at a Volkswagen the same way again, and having my trust broken, I’m seeking to learn from the experience.
This commentary was orginally published on Sept. 23, 2015, in the Brookings Institution's PlanetPolicy newsletter. Timmons Roberts is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and the author of the new book “Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality,” published by MIT Press.