Why VW’s ‘defeat device’ is so deeply offensive

It’s got to stink being a Volkswagen dealer right now.

Not because their phones are ringing off the hook with furious customers demanding to know whether their cars are being recalled. What really has to hurt is the shame of representing a brand that has no honor.

VW has been blatantly caught cheating on U.S. emission standards in the most devious way: In a true marvel of German engineering, its software engineers designed a “defeat device” that detected when the emissions of VW “clean diesel” cars were being tested. When they were, it sent a signal to the engine to dramatically reduce carbon output to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements. The rest of the time, the cars belched into the environment particulate matter up to 40 times U.S. standards — the stuff that gives kids asthma. The scam involved a half million cars in the United States — 11 million worldwide — over seven model years.

What’s most astonishing about the revelation is VW’s utter lack of an excuse. This wasn’t shoddy work or a few engineers cutting corners. This was a sanctioned scheme, evidently, by the world’s No. 1 automaker to systematically defraud the U.S. government and the people it represents. VW was simply caught, and the deception would have continued had it not been.

How do you punish that?

The resignation of VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn is a good start, but only a start. There must be a larger price to pay. VW didn’t just foul the air, it shredded a code of ethics with the public and with fellow carmakers who managed to play by the rules.

I’m not one for faux outrage; I genuinely feel offended as an American by what VW did. The company played my countrymen for fools, and that really sticks in my craw. It’s worse even, at least to me, than having to breathe the extra smog.

But the smog is what VW’s larceny produced, and darned if I’m not starting to feel a tickle in my throat. My breathing seems a little labored, too. So when the class-action-suit email solicitations start showing up in my inbox, I’m signing on this time. As an aggrieved American.

It would be gratuitous and impolitic, normally, to mention that VW became an auto giant through the slave labor of Nazi concentration camp victims. But here it’s an important reminder. An estimated 12,000 slave laborers were forced to work its assembly lines to produce Adolf Hitler’s “people’s car,” which looked virtually identical to the VW bug the world joyfully bought by the millions just two decades later. (My wife’s grandfather was worked to death in one of Hitler’s camps. Her family was never able to learn which one.)

It’s relevant because it shows that VW will, in all likelihood, land back on its feet. If a company can survive the ignominy of 1939-45, it will almost certainly survive a defeat-device scandal.

Even now we see VW stock recovering from its tailspin — meaning investors already see daylight for the company through the fog of smoke it left behind.

It shouldn’t be that easy.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.