Netflix’s recently released series, Dirty Money is being hailed as a portrait of remorseless capitalism, of companies so greedy that they engaged in “truly historic acts of grift.” The lead episode, Hard NOx, directed and produced by Alex Gibney, tackles Volkswagen’s use of a defeat device in its diesel engines, which Road Rules has been following since this story first broke roughly five years ago.
It gets right to it asking the question first begged by the revelation: — what happened to bring the now biggest, and one of the most trusted car companies in the world to conclude that cheating regulators and lying about it would be okay? Pure greed has always seemed too simplistic as a theoretical underpinning for real understanding. Likewise, remorseless capitalism—assuming it means disregard for anything but shareholder value and ‘the bottom line’ —might be precisely what was not at work here.
If anything, we see Wolfsburg as the company town of all company towns, with Volkswagen employees from top to bottom mindful of their inter-dependency and the collective effort underlying their considerable achievements, which is not to implicate more than the named (and yet unnamed) minority of perpetrators, albeit possibly numbering in the hundreds.
Reviews aside, this mini-documentary is a tour de force, a must-see for our readers. The reviewer in UK’s The Guardian commented: “I thought I knew the VW emissions scandal story quite well. But I’ve never seen it so well laid out as in this documentary.” The impressive video footage dramatizes and personalizes the events and the players. Footage of Hitler’s speeches about Volkswagen, his obvious delight in reviewing models of the early ‘Beetle’, and workers on the first assembly line modeled on Henry Ford’s ideas portray some of the company’s history.
The storyline is drawn coherently and carefully. When through lack of innovation Volkswagen’s fortunes fell in the 70s and 80s, Ferdinand Piëch, Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson brought vision and new resolve including becoming by 2018 the pre-eminent car company in the world. By the 90s, when all car companies were mandated by governments to provide greater fuel efficiency for cleaner air, but by the marketplace with no loss of performance and without greater cost, diesel engines became the big new product idea.
The nitrogen oxide and other particulates they emitted in diesel combustion, however, were a problem; and capturing them before they reached the tailpipe would be costly in dollars and performance. Then, suddenly, Volkswagen’s 1996 ad campaign for its new TDI diesel cars indicated resolution, opening the way to recovery of their US market share. How US regulators were alerted to the defeat device is a fascinating tale of their persistent curiosity and eagerness to understand problematic research results.
We also learn the extent to which Volkswagen’s cheat was unoriginal and hardly innovative. We learn, even today, the extent of the difference in Europe’s reaction and the possible reasons for this including that Lower Saxony, for instance, is a major shareholder in Volkswagen.
In the end, this is the story of reducing the truth about reducing emissions.