Shortly before the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler decided that every German should be able to afford a car, so he created and subsidized the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) Wagen.(From Unter dem Sonnenrad: Ein Buch von Kraft durch Freude; Berlin: Verlag der Deutschen Arbeitsfront, 1938) Even Hitler could not have imagined his “people’s car” whose first logo was a modified swastika and is known today as Volkswagen, would one day contribute to the premature deaths of over 6 million people each year all over the world through one of the biggest cases of corporate fraud in history.
Almost as if VW’s dark origins still guide its business practices today, we now know that VW (and its Audi and Porsche subsidiaries) sold 11 million diesel vehicles designed to fool regulators into believing harmful emissions were within government limits, when in fact they were as much as 40 times higher than levels known to cause lung disease and cancer.
We know VW executives methodically tried to “mislead and confuse” the public and regulators about these vehicles, as a complaint by three state Attorneys General describes, including one executive writing to others to “Come up with the story, please!” that would cover their deception after an investigation was started by my former colleagues at the California EPA.
And we now know that Volkswagen’s chief executive, Matthias Müller, was aware and apparently condoned this fraud and its harmful impacts to public health. In a recent study from the International Energy Agency, air pollution was called a global health crisis that contributes to as many as 6.5 million deaths each year. This adds to an overwhelming body of similar evidence that I described in my book (in 2006, the same year as Audi began this deception) “Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction”, which includes studies showing that toxins from diesel exhaust could be found in the umbilical cords of newborns and that children growing up near busy freeways lose up to 1% of their lung function every year because of pollution just like the kind emitted by VW’s cars.
VW responded to the specific accusations against Müller by saying that there is “no credible evidence to support the allegation regarding Matthias Müller” but the first of these doctored cars came from VW’s Audi division in 2006 when Müller was its head of project management. According to the AGs’ complaint, Müller was told that same year that diesel Audis needed special equipment to meet US air quality standards, so he had to be aware of the fact that the vehicle production under his control chose to install “defeat devices” to cheat on emissions tests rather than install the more expensive equipment used by other automakers to scrub harmful toxins from engine exhaust.
VW has since agreed to pay nearly $15 billion in fines and restitution to regulators and consumers, hardly the action of a company whose executives are blameless. But despite what the AGs’ complaint calls a “willful and systematic scheme… that incentivizes cheating and denies accountability [and] comes from the very top and, even now, remains unchecked”, Müller, who is now VW’s CEO, and other executives were awarded 63 million euros in salary and bonuses in 2015.
When I served as the Secretary of the California EPA, if I had been presented with these facts I would have referred the case the state AG and asked if there was any reason that Müller and other VW executives and engineers (all named in the AGs’ complaint) should not go to jail for the rest of their lives. In my view, anything less is to let them get away, quite literally, with contributing to murder.
Members of Hitler’s regime who contributed to mass murder were sentenced to life imprisonment or execution. Is there any reason we should treat VW’s engineers and executives, who perpetrated a fraud that has contributed to the deaths of millions, with any more leniency?