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Reliability and Engineering

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
When I was growing up, my mother ran carpool in our family's red 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. As the youngest, at age 5, I rode in the "back back," the small space behind the second seat that was intended not for people, but for packages or groceries. I shared this sliver of room with my neighbor, Bobby, who was a year older. The front seat was reserved for older siblings -- Bobby's brother Andy, whose French horn was stashed in the front trunk. I can't remember where my sister Kathy put her trombone. But somehow, my mother fit in five kids (including Susie, sister to Andy and Bobby) and the two instruments. Suffice it to say we were close.

In addition to running carpools, the Beetle drove us from Georgia to Pennsylvania, where we visited extended family. We often travelled straight through the night rather than stopping in a hotel. For me, that was just fine. My parents would lay the backseat flat and cover it with blankets, which served as a mattress for my sister and me. Lying on our backs, we would stare at the stars through the rear window as we fell asleep.

Without air conditioning, during the Georgia summers the car was coolest when the triangular front side windows were opened so that wind blew directly in our faces. While we sometimes emerged from such trips a bit disheveled, we would not be sweating. (The good news was that the heater was great during the winter.)

In 1983 Kathy inherited the VW. At some point, the car's age and wear became evident. In the end, the bottom rusted and the left door would no longer close -- it had to be held when rounding a corner to prevent it from swinging open. Oh, and it was best to park it on a hill headed downward, just in case it needed help starting. Once when I borrowed the car I opened the driver's door, put one hand on it and the other on the car frame, and pushed the car down a hill. As it gathered speed, I hopped in, popped the clutch and was thrilled when the car started.


My final memory of the car is of Kathy painting it herself with red Rust-Oleum. It was the flattest red I had ever seen on a car. But it still ran. And since then, I have always felt that Volkswagen's products were good values -- well engineered and dependable.

That image was cracked this week, when Volkswagen acknowledged that it had rigged the software in its diesel cars so that the Environmental Production Agency's emission tests would not detect how much pollution they were contributing to the air. The news caused the company's stock to plunge by more than 30 percent and gave pause to millions of consumers who had purchased the cars based on the belief that they were "like really clean diesel" -- as the U.S. ads boasted. The company that was long known for German engineering and reliability is now known as the company that deliberately manipulated its software.

Volkswagen said this past Tuesday that this software was installed in 11 million diesel cars and announced that the company was now setting aside 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion) to cover the cost of making the cars compliant. It will face additional costs and need additional time to convince its customers that this deception was an aberration, and the VW can once again be trusted.


"Diesel Old Wives' Tales," video ads touting their really clean diesel, featuring three sisters and a professional driver, have been scrubbed from the Internet by Volkswagen. Damage control this week included a video from VW's now-former chief executive Martin Winterkorn, in which he acknowledged his company's failure. "I am deeply sorry we have broken this trust," he said.

But that's not good enough for this VW fan. While he might not have known about the deliberate deception, Winterkorn -- as CEO -- should have known. At the very least, he helped foster a corporate culture in which such deception was implicitly tolerated. As any good PR person will attest, the best way to mend broken corporate trust is to rapidly come clean, make a leadership change and repeatedly reassure customers that the company will once again focus on reliability and engineering. The first part is done: Winterkorn subsequently resigned.

Volkswagen has a long road to travel. Their sustainability push -- labeled "Think Blue" -- says on the company's website, "We aim to lead by example. Ecological sustainability at Volkswagen is a major corporate objective. By it we understand much more than just building efficient cars. That is because we firmly believe that if you want to achieve something you have to view the bigger picture -- and begin with yourself."


That is exactly what Volkswagen has to do: begin with itself. Corporate branding works only when words are backed up by deeds, when they represent a way of life for the company itself. My bet is they can -- but we will have to wait and see how the rubber meets the road.

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