#Dieselgate: Time for us to do our jobs. Start asking questions

Yes, or no?

Yes, or no?

Auto scribes, please cover the diesel (and most likely also gasoline) debacle relentlessly. It’s a great story, and there will be much more to dig for. Keep digging. But please, let’s stop the verbal out-gassing and moral epistles. There is work to do.

Martin Winterkorn had to leave because he found himself in an inescapable dilemma. He either knew, and therefore had to go, or he didn’t, and therefore had to go. As a motor journalist, one is in a similar situation. We either knew about rigged tests, and we need to shut up about lost moral compasses, or we didn’t, and we are unfit for the job.

Why is it that auto writers, who routinely know better how to design, make, motorize and market a car, suddenly never heard of test rigging? We know everything about CAN bus bypass and methanol injection, but we are shocked to hear about defeat devices?  For the record, I state that I knew about testing shenanigans for most of my 40 year plus career on both sides of this business. Until last week, I thought everybody knew, a non-story. So thought Michael Kroeger, formerly department head automotive at Der Spiegel, who writes that “after the second beer, engineers of major automakers concede again and again” that cars are trimmed to behave well on the dyno.” Michael Friedrich, formerly department head at Germany’s Umweltbundesamt, their equivalent to the EPA, said this week that defeat devices are “nothing new” and that “it is a pure coincidence that Volkswagen was first to get caught. In Europe, there is a long row of other cases. But who’s checking?”

If nobody is checking, then its us journalists who need to ask the tough questions. Instantly, two avenues open.

The gearheads who brag about instrumented testing, and about their Vbox data acquisition systems, can load what’s called a “Portable Analyzer for Combustion Emissions” into the trunk, and drive around the countryside. Testers can be bought for a few thousand dollars, far less than the $10,000 to $30,000 it costs to send an auto scribe on a car launch in Hawaii. A good journalist will find a tester to borrow for free, or for a little press exposure.

Old school journalists can implement a much simpler, tried and true method: Ask. Instead of polluting an already heavily impacted environment with more moraline acid, we need to do our damn jobs, and ask auto manufacturers whether they are cheating, or not. Ask straightforward questions, accept only straightforward answers. Be wary of waffling.

Last Monday, Volkswagen was asked whether it uses these devices in Europe also. Instead of an unqualified “nein,” there was a wishy-washy “our EU cars comply with all emission regulations that were in effect when the cars are registered.” My hands-on training in corporate double-speak made my eyebrows rise and ears perk up. A day later, we heard that the device is in 11 million cars, most of them in the EU.

In the past days, BMW took what little media space was left by Volkswagen. AUTO BILD had accused the Munich maker of similar manipulations. Today, BMW thundered back, saying that “BMW Group is committed to observing the legal requirements in each country and fulfilling all local testing requirements.”

Not a good answer. BMW continued:

“In other words, our exhaust treatment systems are active whether rolling on the test bench or driving on the road.

That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not good enough. “Active” doesn’t mean the systems are not fiddled with. We want to know whether there are defeat devices. Ja, oder nein?

We all need to go out and ask automakers: “Do you use, or have you ever used defeat devices in any of your cars?” Don’t accept anything else than a straightforward yes, or no. (Don’t just ask for diesel, gasoline is likewise suspect.)

O.k. I start with the world’s largest automaker. Yesterday night, I had dinner with Jean-Yves Jault, Toyota’s Europe spokesman, who had come to Tokyo. For the record, the dinner was frugal, the bill was $60, and that doesn’t buy you much in Tokyo, despite Eamonn Fingleton’s and Ford’s complaints about an undervalued yen. Oh, and we split the tab.

Of course we talked about topic #1, and I asked Jean-Yves: “Do you use, or have you ever used defeat devices in any of your cars?”

The answer was:

“No.”

I also contacted Rachel Konrad, spokesperson of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. She said that Nissan doesn’t make any diesel engines. Renault makes them. And “Renault issued a statement that it does not make, install, authorize or otherwise use defeat devices.”

Ok, that’s a No.

Pick up the phones. Call your flacks. But for goodness’ sake, can the drivel.

P.S.: Toyota has lots of diesel engines in the EU, by BMW and by Toyota.