As the Federal Government rolls-back vehicle emission standards, we must nor forget that both standards and enforcement are critical. Though we should decry the attack on public health caused by President Trump’s recent actions, we should not focus so much on standards that we give short shrift to the monitor-and-control function, wherever that may take us
Indeed, in recent months, Volkswagen, the world’s largest automobile company, has been found guilty on criminal charges, and forced to pay billions of dollars in fines, for fraudulent emissions tests on several models of its diesel-powered cars. Essentially, Volkswagen used software -- defeat device -- such that tail-pipe emissions in laboratory tests were able to pass environmental standards. But in actual driving conditions, emission of noxious nitrogen oxide gases, and particulate matter, were up to 40-times greater than approved levels. Volkswagen has paid a heavy price, both for its test-taking actions, and its stubborn attempts at cover-up.
Egregious as this behavior was, it pales in the light of related actions by Volkswagen. During its cover-up phase, Volkswagen directed a research study in New Mexico, designed to show that new diesel-powered models posed no health threats. The original design proposed placing human subjects in a chamber into which tail-pipe emissions were pumped. Facing some internal resistance, humans were replaced by ten monkeys. The monkeys’ organs were subsequently analyzed to identify the effects of these emissions. Animal rights activists were outraged by this experimental design.
What seems to have eluded Volkswagen, regulators, animal-rights activists, and the press is the symbolism of this experimental procedure. The history of the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews was a defining event in the history of the human race. Most people know of Nazi death camps, but fewer, it seems, are familiar with the Nazi’s drive for murder efficiency.
In the early 1940s, the Nazi’s designed, manufactured, and deployed, mainly in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, S-trucks. These vehicles comprised a sealed container into which up to 100 persons could be packed. As the truck set off for a burial pit, engine emissions were pumped into the container, ensuring death by the time the truck arrived at its destination.
Volkswagen’s use of similar technology to conduct emission experiments is abhorrent, outrageous, and inexcusable. Given the history of its founding, championed by Adolf Hitler, Volkswagen should be especially concerned to distance itself from that fateful era, for the sake of its customers, employees, shareholders, and the German nation.
Volkswagen’s leaders should truly demonstrate that the company has put its past behind it by offering yet another, but much more deeply felt, apology, for the awful symbolism of its actions.
Noel Capon, R.C. Kopf of International Marketing, Columbia Business School, New York, NY