How can Volkswagen atone for diesel deception?

Volkswagen has a long way to go to regain the trust of the public, but it could start by coming up with ways to offset the pollution caused by its diesel cars and promoting the spread of electric vehicles. 

Michael Sohn/AP
An activist of the environmental protection organization 'Greenpeace' holds a protest poster in front of a factory gate of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, where the supervisory board meet to discuss who to name as CEO after Martin Winterkorn quit the job this week over an emissions-rigging scandal that's rocking the world's top-selling automaker.

The full impact of Volkswagen's diesel-emission cheating scandal has yet to be realized, but what it has apparently already admitted to doing could result in the largest civil fine ever levied by the Federal government on an automaker.

And that's just the beginning.

Besides paying civil penalties, and coping with a spate of criminal actions, and class-action lawsuits, and investigations by multiple levels of government, VW also needs to deal with the 482,000 cars it sold--plus more in limbo at dealers--that clearly do not comply with emission laws.

In real-world use, these vehicles emit 10 to 35 times the allowable legal limit of certain pollutants, so they're not just slightly out of compliance. They will need to be modified to comply, or VW will have to buy them back.

And if owners don't like the modified cars, they'll likely have to buy those cars back too.

After all that, VW has to figure out how to regain the trust of the public. 

There are lots of aspects to this debacle, and all will undoubtedly be discussed ad nauseam over the coming weeks. But the aspect I find most interesting is how Volkswagen can best right the wrongs it has done.

How does paying fines, settling lawsuits, and bringing highly-polluting vehicles into compliance really undo the damage done?

It doesn't. All it does is punish Volkswagen. And I believe the public deserves more. 

Make no mistake: If VW is guilty as charged, it absolutely deserves to be punished--and severely.

But I hope the Justice Department also considers what can be done to offset the damage to air quality created by the offending so-called "clean diesels." And I hope VW, separately, does the same.

We've seen penalty estimates as high as $18 billion dollars (the maximum allowed of $37,500 per vehicle) for intentionally violating the Clean Air Act. I doubt the actual penalty will be anywhere close to that, but it will likely be in the billions.

I think it's not unreasonable to expect the fine to be somewhere around $2.5 billion, or about $5,000 per non-compliant vehicle sold.

Why not use a portion of that civil fine to invest in a nationwide DC Fast Charge network for electric vehicles?

If just half of a $2.5 billion fine were dedicated to this purpose, we could blanket the majority of Interstate highways and major high-traffic corridors with DC fast chargers that would make switching from gasoline and diesel cars to zero-emission electric vehicles a much easier decision for many buyers.

Here's why I believe that is what should be done.

Helping to advance the proliferation of cleaner electric vehicles would, over time, more than reverse the emissions damage that has been done, and further improve the quality of air we breathe, instead of just punishing the offender.

And shouldn't that be the goal here?

A second thought: As well as using the fine to build out a national DC fast-charging network, how about Volkswagen getting out in front of this crisis itself and telling us how it will do its part to help clean the air it polluted?

Rather than just declaring that it will be a leader in electric mobility, as the company has done before, show us the proof that it's serious about how it plans to expand its zero-emission vehicle offerings?

VW Group could combine that with a generous investment in public charging infrastructure, on a much greater scale than last December's partnership with BMW and ChargePoint to install approximately 100 DC fast chargers.

That program in just now starting to get under way, but it's really only the beginning of what's needed. VW should commit to expanding it to 400 or 500 stations, including high-volume corridors not only on the East and West coasts but across the country--essentially following the Tesla Supercharger road map.

Yet another idea to consider: Give the owners of the affected vehicles the option to replace their car with a new electric Volkswagen e-Golf.

Some current Volkswagen TDI diesel owners have said they now feel guilty for having driven their diesel for the past few years, with a main reason for their purchase having been both fuel economy and because it was a "clean" diesel.

Offering those owners the option to return the polluting car for a much cleaner Volkswagen could demonstrate that VW understands and is concerned with its customers' desire to drive clean cars.

Many owners won't take advantage of such an offer--diesel partisans can be just as committed to their technology as electric-car advocates--but the offer would send a powerful signal about the company's intent.

I believe these are the sort of things Volkswagen must consider if it wants to convince the public it is serious about making proper restitution for this egregious deception.

There are plenty of ways to make some good come out of this shameful episode. No matter how you slice it, it will be very painful for Volkswagen AG. How well or poorly the company manages this crisis will  have a lingering effect for years to come, even decades.

It appears VW intentionally deceived both the American consumer and the U.S. government, and put public health at risk, by knowingly planning and executing a fraud. To me, and I think to many others, that's much worse than a carmaker trying to delay or prevent a vehicle recall.

But Americans are forgiving people, and sin followed by redemption is a part of our national myth.

As long as we believe the offender is genuinely remorseful for what it did, and is taking steps to prove it has learned from the offense, recovery is possible--perhaps even lauded and held up as a shining example of redemption.

Now that we've found out the real truth in German engineering, the ball has moved into VW's court to decide on what it can do to begin to offset the damage it has done to itself, its customers, and the environment.

Let's hope Volkswagen is smart enough to make the right decisions.

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