Don’t you love German humor: Volkswagen engineers make complex environmental problem look like child’s play

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Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has taken a global lead in green energy initiatives. The country has committed to renewable energy in a big way, for instance with a program they poetically call “German Energiewende”. It’s full of cuddly German analyses that point out the dire environmental straits we’re in. The site explains how a transition to green energy sources is not only possible but currently happening because of Germany’s “can-do” attitude.

Such attitude is alive and well at Volkswagen, where a sober (maybe not anymore) band of engineers applied their machine-like talents for efficiency to US environmental testing procedures. Sorry for laughing, but as an auto enthusiast used to perplexing German marketing slogans like “Vorsprung durch Technik” (“vorsprung” apparently translates loosely as “to keep ahead of”, so maybe for the next slogan – Vorsprung durch Lawyers?) from Audi or the parent company gem “Fahrvergnugen” (which VW finds playful but makes babies cry) it is wildly funny to see a global behemoth suddenly hamstrung by the very talents that make their products indispensable to half the world’s Successful People. Well, it’s funny if you like irony.

In case you missed it, Volkswagen’s diesel engine cars, extremely popular amongst the environmentally sensitive side of the motoring public because of their great fuel efficiency, are pretty average with respect to emissions, or maybe worse, because they were designed to trick environmental testing procedures into giving them a clean bill of health. Like swapping urine samples with your drug addled buddies so they can get that taxi license. The diesel engine cars have sophisticated software that detects when the car is being tested in the US government labs (trust a German car to make friends with a testing machine), and alters the engine’s operating conditions to pump out very low levels of pollutants. Once free of the confines of the test lab, the car could merrily go back to spewing garbage into the air, with a certificate in its pocket to prove it did not.

If you think about it, this Advancement Through Technology is a terribly obnoxious scheme on several levels. First off is that it took considerable effort to do all this, for the car to recognize the test pattern and act accordingly, and then subsequently to convince VW management that a) this was a good idea at all and b) have the balls to actually approve its implementation. One would imagine that at least one of the massive German brains on the project would have reasoned that, if the scheme came to light, there would be a scheiss-storm of epic proportions.

On another level, the audacity of the plan is even more astonishing. Volkswagen is an integral part of Germany, partially owned by one of the German states. The German states are the very political entities that have thrust forward German Energiewende and been not shy in pointing out how important the whole schtick is. I don’t know how irony fares translated into German humor but I suspect in this instance not that well.

It’s a pretty sticky situation to get out of. How do you fix the cars? Do you hobble performance to meet emissions standards? They’ll be like riding lawnmowers. There’s apparently 11 million of them out there with these talents, so buying them back or replacing them would be pricey, in addition to the huge fines the company will have to pay. The most recent (and really feeble) update has the company offering a $2,000 rebate on any new VW car for those who tried to save the planet before by buying a diesel. There is no mention on whether legal software will be a no-cost upgrade.

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