What Trust Exactly Is VW Hoping To Win Back?

VW is having a bit of a shocking week, to put it mildly -- and now the car industry is going to find out three things. Have they all been fiddling pollution test results, will miles per gallon results be the next figures to come under suspicion, and finally, is there actually any trust with consumers to restore in the first place?

Just as when the phone-hacking scandal broke, many of us in the media had a strong suspicion that it was not going to be limited to just News UK, and the subsequent spread of the investigation to Trinity Mirror titles has proven the point. So it's a terrible week for VW, but one can only imagine other carmakers are frantically trying to find out if they do the same thing. Do they have software that can make their diesel engines momentarily turn down pollution levels so tests are passed before the engine switches back to normal and pumps out nitrous oxide that exceeds legal limits?

When cars are sold on emissions and pollutant figures, it would be hard to imagine that it is only a single VW engine that is under suspicion.

Which brings us neatly on to the question of what regulators will discover now that governments across Europe have ordered investigations. Will miles per gallon be questioned next as the car manufacturers are put in the dock? If they are, they might as well plead guilty now. Official fuel efficiency figures are a laughingstock. I don't think there's a single person out there who believes them. The tests are carried out in laboratories, rather than on the road, with the cars tuned and set up to perform to standards they could never achieve on the road. The cars are light, there's a suspicion that tyres are pumped up to reduce friction, and everything electrical that can be dispensed with is switched off.

Leave aside questions of how realistic a 90-second jaunt on a rolling road in a laboratory is -- the cars are never tested in a state in which they would ever be found on the road. Hence, What Car has an entire section on its Web site devoted to giving more realistic miles per gallon figures. Worryingly, the difference can be as much as 20 miles per gallon between tests on the road and tests in the laboratory.

However, the laboratory test is the laboratory test -- and so as long as makers cannot prove to have cheated the process, then I would expect a more realistic testing regime will be brought in, but no action will be taken against manufacturers who did everything they can within the rules to get the best figures possible, no matter how unrealistic they are.

Which brings us to the third point. VW has been vocal about restoring trust. My question would be, what trust? Have you ever come across an industry where consumer trust, in the finer details at least, has ever been so low? Consumers don't believe fuel efficiency claims, and they now probably don't believe emissions figures either. Add to that the fact that it's only recently that garages have told you the on-the-road price for a car -- yes, you're being charged to register the vehicle and have it delivered to the forecourt, and you get an idea of how low the public's perception of carmakers' claims is. Let's not forget that nobody actually trusts the price on the car anyway. There's always something it doesn't include and there's always some extra "scotch guard" or tougher paint you'll be told you're foolish not to have added, and that's before we get on to upgrading to satellite navigation and an automatically opening tailgate.

So, to be honest, I love cars and I wouldn't want to be seen as saying there is complete mistrust between the public and carmakers. Rather, I think it's more like the relationship we have with politicians. We kind of have to trust them on the big, macro issues -- but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, we don't have full trust in any of them to deliver what they promised when they were after our vote, or selling us a car. 

When VW says it wants to regain trust, then, my point would be, what trust?

1 comment about "What Trust Exactly Is VW Hoping To Win Back?".
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  1. Martin Albrecht from CROSSMEDIA, September 23, 2015 at 10:12 a.m.

    What Volkswagen and the transparency debate have in common

    I appreciate your take on the low level of industry trust, but think you are missing three essential points.

    First, I disagree that lab tests and comparisons are of no value because their results don't reflect everyday figures. While I would agree no soccer mom has ever succeeded in fitting 560 liters worth of luggage into a Mercedes station wagon, the value of lab tests are in their relative comparison more so than in them generating realistic every day results. Just because the absolute figures of say a fuel efficiency lab test are meaningless, doesn't mean the results are not helping consumers make an educated choice.

    Secondly, I think you are running a very cynical argument here: even if you conclude that the test is valueless because of its lack of reflecting realistic everyday figures, it does not mean it is ok to cheat: in other words: just because no ordinary man can run 100m in 10 seconds anyway, doesn't mean that Olympians are ok to use illegal performance enhancing drugs.

    Finally: the level of shock this deceit has produced around the world proves your argument wrong: because consumers and governments have trusted the auto industry so much is why they will not forget this one so easily.

    This crisis is about the values we have as a society and the responsibility we have beyond our shareholders. The worst outcome of this crisis is that more people feel invited to a logic that goes like this: the less I am trusted, the less I need to worry about cheating. Sounds familiar? Yes: just look at the transparency debate in the media industry.

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