September 26, 2015 - In the past week or two Volkswagen has been in the news for all the wrong reasons with a crisis that could cripple the all-powerful manufacturer.
The fuss is in essence all about the morality of cheating – committing a fraud – the fact that it also involves understating the polluting effect of its vehicles, clearly makes it worse. There is no way anyone can defend what the company has done, it is clearly wrong in every way. However the wide range of reactions from the media, politicians and the public and the faux panic/shock horror is comical to say the least.
As usual the ambulance chasing lawyers smell blood in the water and are doing their bit to whip up the horror and outrage and the feeling that it is our duty to sue the company for not selling us as clean a car as we thought we were buying. Let’s be honest, the vast majority of people buy the lower polluting cars in order to save money on road and other ‘green’ taxes, rather than to save the planet. And until now that has been measured by CO2 emissions which is not what this is all about. I doubt if many buyers selected their car based on the Nitrogen Oxide emissions.
I would also wager a substantial bet that if Volkswagen put a switch in the car allowing drivers to select either lower nitrogen oxide emissions OR lower fuel consumption and less servicing – most would select the lower fuel consumption when in the privacy of their car.
We have known for years that the results from official tests for fuel economy and more recently emissions cannot actually be achieved in the real world, as the tests are done in laboratory conditions. What we did believe though was that these statistics were at least a good comparative as every manufacturer had to go through the same test. Now we know that at least one of them was cheating – at least in the USA.
Among those ‘shocked’ by such immoral behaviour will be thousands of people who are quite happy to cheat if they can get away with it. Closer to home I am aware of dozens of companies who over the years have cheated their cranes or platforms though road approval tests. In the most extreme cases I know of, dealers in challenging markets used to remove telescope cylinders and hydraulic oil etc… before submitting their big cranes for road approval, knowing full well that once certified there were no mobile test weights large enough to handle the axle loads. Companies still claim small truck mounted lifts to be under the critical 3.5 tonne GVW, knowing full well that this is not true in the real world, with fuel in the tanks equipment and a driver etc… Manufacturers and rental companies will also collude to get big truck mounted lifts through Whole Vehicle type approvals by claiming that they are cranes and thus exempt – knowing full well that they are not.
When it comes to accidents, contractors and in some cases manufacturers, will sometimes do all they can to hide or fluff over evidence that might place the blame on them. It is human nature of course but some take it to the extreme shutting down a site before inspectors arrive to prevent a truly open review of the evidence.
The recent investigation into the big crawler crane that went over in Saudi Arabia – a country not noted for its openness – was a very surprising example of openness with the cause quickly exposed and communicated with no attempt to hide the facts - or cheat- Of course in this case the owner and the operator of the crane were out of the loop and with so many fatalities the global interest too great. But had this happened on a closed site with only one or two poor souls losing their lives it would have been different. Many of us are aware of several examples where this has been the case.
So let’s not be coy about it, corporate and personal cheating remains more widespread than we would care to admit, although corporate cheating has - I think - declined significantly since the days when telescope cylinders were removed, partially due to the testers become more savvy. What is more interesting is who had the bright idea at Volkswagen to write the software that cheated the test? And even more critically who did they then discuss their invention with? I would like to believe that if this idea had been debated with more than just one or two executives, at least one would have said “No! come on this is wrong. And the repercussions too great if it were to get out”.
From experience I have found that once one person raises the morality flag in a meeting, the majority quickly shift to that position. It is also unrealistic to assume that word will not get out – it always does once more than three people know a secret.
Of course if the practice is more widespread …… then everyone colludes with the lie, on the basis that it is standard industry practice and just a practical way to overcome an impractical or unworkable regulation.
In summary there is no justification for cheating in this way – but change requires a great deal more openness and practicality on the part of regulators, safety authorities, inspectors and companies. Supported by a system that allows witnesses to report malpractice without fear of repercussions.
We appear to be sliding into an era where truth and facts are seen as disruptive irritations, not only by outspoken ‘populist’ politicians, but increasingly of large companies and industry associations.
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