Volkswagen's Lies Highlight Car Journalism's Failures

Sharon Silke Carty

Last year, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf won a ton of awards. It got honors from the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, won Yahoo! Autos top prize, and was named best of the best by a variety of other publications.

You won’t see anyone, including us here Yahoo, running out to rescind the award, despite the confession from Volkswagen that it intentionally deceived the public for seven years about the cleanliness of its diesel engines. We won’t be doing that because the awards were given to all the different varieties of Golf engines, including the gas engines which make up the bulk of sales. 

But there’s another reason why we won’t be taking back the awards. It’s because the awards aren’t designed to tell you which car is really the best car out there. Honestly, we have no idea. 

Here’s what an automotive award really tells you: Is this car fun to drive? Does it look cool? And does it—in its most brand-new, shined-up version—deliver on the marketing promises the automaker makes in its commercials?

That’s it. Can we tell you if the airbags are going to work when you get in a crash? Nope. Can we tell you if the airbags will accidentally blow up in your face when you hit a curb? Nope. Can we tell you if some low-level manager ordered a cheap part that goes into some crucial piece of equipment that is doomed to break after 40,000 miles and leave you careening precariously down a steep mountainbank? Nope, not that either. Can we even tell you what kind of fuel economy you’ll get in the car? Not really. We’ll say that’s because everyone drives differently, which is true, but it’s also true that the automakers have a tendency to fudge those numbers. And we’re never really sure when they’re telling the truth. 

The auto industry needs good, strong watchdogs, and the media does not really fill this role. It is filled by non-profit consumer advocates, an insurance industry group that pays attention to safety issues, and some cash-strapped overworked government agencies that often rely on the automakers to police themselves. That’s what happened with VW: Volkswagen was self-certifying its pollution information and handing those numbers over to the EPA. But corporations are working hard to keep watchdogs in the dark, making it easier to cheat, says Autoblog’s Pete Bigelow. And that would hurt us all. 

In retrospect, perhaps someone should have known something was up at VW. For a few years, until 2008, European automakers were loudly complaining about U.S. requirements that would require a costly urea-injection system to clean the nitrogen oxides out of diesel fumes that lead to dangerous smog. Problem was, those systems could run out of urea, rendering it useless, and U.S. officials wanted automakers to install switches that would disable diesel cars that were running out of urea.

And then, voila, VW had a solution that avoided the urea issue altogether for its small passenger cars. After taking diesels off the U.S. market in 2007 and 2008, by the 2009 model year the automaker said it had come up with a solution that used a particulate trap and a catalyst to clean the air. One reporter even quoted some Volkswagen engineers as saying the air coming out of the 2009 diesel Jetta was cleaner than the air going in.

Of course, we now know that was a flat-out, bald-faced lie. 

The air coming out of the back of VW’s diesel engines was 40 times more polluted than allowable by law. But at the time, it looked like VW had made a huge environmental advance. By driving a “clean” diesel, you could go further on one tank of gas than you could on a tank of gasoline, and you could do it without spewing toxic fumes.

Journalists take part in a fuel-mileage record attempt with a VW Passat diesel.

It was those advancements that led the Green Car Journal to bestow its 2009 “Green Car of the Year” award on the VW Jetta TDI.

Volkswagen isn’t the first automaker to lie to the public through the media. Car companies pump fake engine noise into your car to make it sound better. They put performance tires on a car to make it handle better for test drivers. They lie about how fuel efficient their cars are (See Ford, Hyundai.) They lie during recall investigations (See GM, Toyota.)

They lie, because they are playing a competitive, multibillion-dollar game that they all want to win.

As automotive writers, we like to think we’re fairly sophisticated about these machines. Because we are around cars a lot, drive fancy cars in some really exotic locales, and can rattle off vehicle stats like baseball fans know their favorite player’s batting average, we think we actually know what’s going on. But we don’t. Of all the lies cited above, just one was caught by a reporter, and that was the one about Lincoln putting the wrong tires on a test drive car. One was a trend story that called out as a lie by the Washington Post (fake sounds pumped into vehicles), but other magazines and web sites wrote about the same topic except noted it as a gee-whiz cool new feature coming in cars. The rest came from Congressional investigations, consumer watchdog groups, and lawyers investigating accidents.

A Volkswagen exec with the 2013 World Car of the Year award

As editor-in-chief of Yahoo Autos, I would love to be able to pledge that we will be smarter and will catch these things before we hand out prizes and write glowing reviews about the next hot thing. But that would be disingenuous. We are not engineers. We can’t dismantle each vehicle we drive and strap pollution-testing equipment to reliably verify every claim a car company makes.

But we can do a better job of pointing out what we don’t know. Instead of taking VW at its word, we will do a better job of telling you that their EPA numbers were self-certified and not verified by anyone at the EPA. We can tell you when we’ve only spent a few hours behind the wheel of a car we’ve test driven, and stress that our opinions are based off the equivalence of a quick first date.  

We also pledge to listen more closely to the watchdog groups and pay attention to issues they raise. Change often comes from one or two people who get worked up about an issue and can’t let it go. That’s how we got our current lemon laws, which force automakers to take back new cars that break soon after they are sold. 

This VW emissions issue was caught by the International Council on Clean Transportation and West Virginia University, which were looking into the real-world emissions of diesel engines. The groups gave a public speech on their findings in May 2014 saying something was amiss: Their tests showed that, on average, the vehicles emitted seven times the pollutants expected. And in some cases, the cars spewed out 25 times over emissions limits. 

It took more than a year for this news to make it into the public eye, and in that time VW continued selling diesels to our friends, neighbors and family members. I personally have recommended their diesels to several people in the past year. I was a sucker. Like many journalists, I now wish I would have picked up on that speech a lot earlier. 

We need to continue to support the watchdogs, listen to them and enable them to do their jobs by providing adequate funding for the agencies that monitor these corporations. And automotive writers need to stop pretending like we are experts and pay better attention to the real ones. The truth is, we can only see a small sliver of the industry, and it’s usually the smoke-and-mirrors side, sometimes with literal smoke machines and mirrored disco balls and thumping DJ music as a car rolls out onto a stage. 

It’s time we do better.