Ah, those heady times behind the wheel of my 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI SportWagen! It handled like a dream and endeared me to the German family down the block. A road trip from the District to far northeastern Pennsylvania and back consumed barely over a tank of diesel.
Though glorious, the car’s mpg was nothing compared to its MSQ — Moral Superiority Quotient. One day I spotted my notoriously progressive friend from Takoma Park lumbering along in his gas-guzzling minivan. “Hey, buddy!” I jeered, pulling alongside him in my Jetta. “How come I’m driving Green Car Journal’s 2009 Green Car of the Year and you’ve got that thing?”
Ha. Ha. Ha. Now I’m gnashing my teeth at the news that it was all an illusion — that VW cheated on Environmental Protection Agency emissions tests using software specially designed for that nefarious purpose. (Green Car Journal has rescinded its award.)
Instead of selling me an environmentally friendly, legally good-to-go car that gets 40 mpg on the highway, and 29 in the city, VW sold me, well, a car. It can be recalled and brought into compliance through retrofitting, months from now, at who-knows-what cost in performance and fuel economy.
“I understand and fully appreciate your anger and frustration,” says the letter of apology I just received from Michael Horn, president and chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America.
Do you, Mike? Really?
Like thousands of other VW buyers, I paid a premium for my diesel Jetta, as compared with the gas-powered version, thinking that the fuel economy would offset it over time, at least partly.
Now, in addition to that busted value proposition, we’re coping with evaporating equity: Kelley Blue Book reports an average 13-percent decline in resale prices for VW diesels since the scandal broke. They might go back up, depending on how VW’s fix works; but part of me just wants to slap a “free” sign on the thing and leave it at the curb.
VW can, and should, compensate its diesel owners for these financial losses. What really stings, though, is the psychological blow — and I don’t know how they’ll make us whole for that. How many dollars is my lost sense of environmental virtue worth, even discounted for all the times I flaunted it? Who can put a price tag on the shamefaced retraction I owe that guy from Takoma Park?
Don’t be so hard on yourself, friends console. The diesel Jetta’s lower fuel consumption, relative to the gas-burning version, means you were still helping reduce carbon emissions and oil imports, even if the unhealthful nitrogen oxide emissions were many times legal levels.
Most important, they say, you couldn’t know VW’s “clean diesel” pitch was an oxymoron, enabled by elaborate fraud in faraway Wolfsburg.
All true — though accepting that latter point entails a loss of faith in a car company that epitomized Germany’s vaunted, super-competitive export industries. Note to Audi, the VW subsidiary that also cheated: Why was “Truth in Engineering” still your slogan as of Sunday? (By the way, how do you say schadenfreude in Greek?)
I don’t mean to tar all German companies with the same brush. Rather, this episode is an unsettling reminder of how we are all at the mercy of experts and technicians and agencies operating far beyond our control and far beyond our ken.
I have no idea how diesel engines work. I have no idea how the EPA tests them. Frankly, I am in no position to decide, for myself, how accurate or vital, for public health, the EPA’s emissions standards are in the first place.
Though I read the car blogs and the reviews, and flattered myself that I knew everything there was to know about it, my VW purchase was the last link in a long chain of human interaction forged not only from information, science and law, but also old-fashioned trust, faith and wish fulfillment.
If not for the curiosity of researchers at the previously unheralded International Council on Clean Transportation, and at West Virginia University, we VW diesel drivers would still be blissfully tooling around town, feeling superior to our neighbors.
I should have known you can’t have it all — performance, fuel economy and pollutant-free tailpipe emissions. But, like so many others, I believed. I fell into, or bought into, that characteristic pretense of our age: that we cosseted postindustrial consumers can do good while doing well.
To have this illusion debunked is disappointing. To have it shattered by active deception, infuriating. But it is also a learning experience. Maybe I owe VW, for tuition.