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Opinion

Opinion: USA vs. VW - something's not right

Pressure on VW is mounting in the US in connection with its diesel emissions scandal - maybe too much pressure. DW's Henrik Böhme thinks some actors in the drama seem to have lost their sense of proportion.

Anyone who has ever bought a toaster made in the USA will have been struck by the fact that such devices, simple though they are, come packaged with a remarkably thick instructions manual. On the second page there's an explanation of how the toaster is operated. The rest of the booklet takes pages and pages to describe various things one must NOT do with the toaster. Don't stick your hands in it, don't shove any metal implements, cats, dogs or hamsters into it, and so on.

The reason: if some foolish action were not listed in the instruction booklet and some idiot ended up taking that action, the maker of the toaster could find themselves facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit claiming injuries, and possibly bankruptcy.

But it appears that the people at VW in charge of generating emissions test cheating software over the past few years didn't have a made-in-America toaster standing around in their kitchens. There's no other way to explain the stupidity of their fraud.

The events of Monday this week reveal as delusion the hopes of anyone at the carmaker's headquarters who might have believed, for whatever inexplicable reason, that the waves of discontent and fury raised by VW's emissions scandal would soon die down again, or that they'd get off with a couple of moderate out-of-court settlements.

It was revealed this week that in addition to some 500 complaints against VW lodged in US courts by private persons, no less august a body than the US Government has now joined in with a civil lawsuit against Volkswagen. This was announced, as it happens, immediately before the opening of the big US auto show in Detroit. Well, shucks, that was probably just a coincidence.

The US state against Volkswagen

The government's lawsuit could turn out to be a bitter blow against VW's fortunes, because the allegations are serious. The issue of fraudulent emissions tests aren't the only issue. Another is the government's allegation that VW had not been cooperative in the investigation of the fraud to date.

Deutsche Welle, Henrik Böhme, Senior Editor, Business news

Henrik Böhme is DW's senior business news editor

Also, no less seriously, the lawsuit said VW had violated "the laws of our nation against air pollution." At the latest, it was upon reading this part of the lawsuit's text that this commentator began to have trouble breathing. The USA, one of the greatest, most enthusiastic air polluters on the planet, accuse a European carmaker with perhaps 600,000 of its cars on American roads - a tiny fraction of the US vehicle stock - of polluting the air so badly that some as-yet undefined number of people are supposed to have died of it?

Really? This story of aggrieved victimisation is coming from a country whose citizens have a special affection for buying Ford F-150 pickup trucks with 6.2 liter engines and a fuel consumption of 15 liters of gasoline per 100 km (19 miles to the gallon)? Seriously?

Something's not quite cricket here, chaps

There were demonstrably some 100 deaths caused when US carmaker General Motors failed to conduct a timely recall of vehicles with defective ignition switches. GM settled out of court by paying a fine of $900 million, and in addition it will pay an additional million dollars for each victim, plus $300,000 for the victim's families. VW on the other hand, some have calculated, faces a fine of up to $37,000 per car affected by the diesel emissions fraud - in total, that would be about $22 billion.

Others have estimated the damages could go as high as $90 billion. That would represent a killing blow against Volkswagen Group. And maybe that's exactly what some of the players in Washington have in mind: One less competitor for America's domestic carmakers.

Apropos American industry: In Spring, the US will be this year's "partner nation" in the world's biggest industrial trade show, in the city of Hannover in the German state of Lower Saxony. That's the state which is home to VW's headquarters and original factory sites. President Obama has let it be known he plans to attend the trade fair, and when he's sitting at a trade-show dais or strolling through the halls, it's more than likely that one or another VW bigwig will be loping along at his side.

Spicy, that. It so happens that the economy minister of the state of Lower Saxony, a chap named Olaf Lies (pronounced Lee-iss, by the way) is a member of the board of directors of the trade fair's managing corporation, Deutsche Messe AG, and he's also on the board of Volkswagen Group, because Lower Saxony owns a significant minority block of shares in the company.

Maybe it will occur to the Minister that having the USA as the trade fair's special partner nation this year isn't such a good idea after all.

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