I bet these executives won’t go to jail either

It turns out that Volkswagen has gone to great lengths to deceive emissions tests on its diesel vehicles in order to enable the engines to get better performance when it was being driven under normal conditions.

For at least five years, Volkswagen officials illegally rigged their vehicles’ pollution-control systems so they would run cleanly only during emissions tests, while spewing higher levels of pollutants on the highway, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Mark Kleinman explains how the fraud was perpetrated and makes the important point that the elaborate nature of the fraud shows that this was not the case of a few people going rogue.

In the VW case, code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal – that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty – operations. That meant emitting about 40x the permitted -and advertised – level of nitrous oxide, which makes smog.

Now just think about the depth of corporate depravity involved. This wasn’t one rogue engineer or engineering group at work. People up and down the chain had to be party to the crime. And note that the conspiracy held together for six years, and was finally broken not by an internal leak but by the work of outside scientists at West Virginia University. Wasn’t there a single decent human being around when this was being planned and carried out?

Clearly there wasn’t. And there won’t be until the practice of simply issuing fines for corporate malfeasance stops and top executives start facing real jail time for these kinds of crimes.

Kevin Drum has more on this story.

In Georgia, a CEO is about to go to jail for a long time—maybe for life—because he approved the sale of tainted peanuts across state lines. The result was a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed nine people. The CEO’s brother and a quality control manager at the plant also face prison time.

Did VW’s actions sicken hundreds and kill at least nine people? A quick swag suggests that VW emitted about 3,000 excess tons of nitrous oxide in Southern California alone over the past six years, which may have caused as many as a dozen or more incremental deaths. If we can put a peanut CEO in prison for this, why not an auto CEO?

Good question.

But none of the top executives in the financial sector went to jail for the things they did and I don’t expect the VW honchos to either. The government treats these companies as too big to fail and their executives as too big to jail.


  1. raym says

    Well, I understand the CEO apologised, so his remorse ought to be enough to satisfy everyone, right? Right?

  2. fentex says

    Does Germany have private prosecutions? Because if I’d bought a car I thought was contributing to a decrease in pollution but had been defrauded into contributing increasing amounts of it I’d prosecute those responsible personally.

    And if I csan’t push a criminal prosecution I’d just have to settle for a big class action law suit I guess.

  3. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “But none of the top executives in the financial sector went to jail for the things they did and I don’t expect the VW honchos to either.” -- The “VW honchos” are Germans, living in Germany. I’m not sure they could be effectively prosecuted, or whether Germany would extradite them.

    “Does Germany have private prosecutions?” -- It’s not clear whether the same tricks have been implemented in European models. In case that isn’t clear, European and American models of all car brands are typically quite different from each other.

  4. Mano Singham says


    As I understand it the deceit was done on the models built in the US for the US market and the company has a major corporate presence here with American executives.

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