Dirty Money is a new investigative series on Netflix that explores the corruption and greed of people and corporations.
The first episode of the series shines a light on Volkswagen (VW) and how the company deliberately went out of its way to lie and then cover up the fact that their cars were producing almost 50% more emissions than they claimed. The series gives a brief history of VW and how most German carmakers designed luxury-style cars that many could not afford, so eventually Adolf Hitler got involved and ordered the production of what he would call the “People’s Car.” Long story short, Hitler got with Ferdinand Porsche and produced the first VW car, and on May 28th, 1937 Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens or (Volkswagen for short) was founded.
The VW bug and VW van were a big hit with American counterculture (hippies) during the 1960s, but VW never really gained popularity with U.S. buyers, mostly because of their diesel engines. According to the series, diesel is much more efficient than gas, but it produces much more carbon dioxide, which is bad for people and the environment. The exhaust produces Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and when that mixes with the ozone, it produces smog, which damages your lungs, causing asthma and cancer, and is a factor in acid rain. It’s really nasty stuff.
Now, VW has a problem because they want to dominate the auto industry, but they can’t without the American market. Still, the American market doesn’t like diesel, therefore the German brand has been unable to grab its share. So, what did they do? VW decided that they would be deceitful in order to boost salles. The company opened up a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee and started to market “clean diesel” cars that were low cost, got great millage, were fun to drive, and yet, caused very little air pollution. This claim drew the attention of John German, a “pragmatic environmentalist.” According to German, the reason they got involved and did testing was to prove that VW got it right. What happened was this:
In 2011/12, German got a report from the European Joint Research Centre (JRC) that showed that very high levels of diesel emissions in Europe. German and his group thought that that was odd and figured there was some data missing or that their tests were wrong, so they decided to test diesel emissions in America to show Europe that they somehow got it wrong while the U.S. got it right.
WELLLL German contracted a group of scientists from the University of West Virginia (described as “car geeks”) who wanted to test and see if this “clean diesel” claim was for real, so they focused on European cars being sold in the U.S. After testing, they found that lab numbers were at safe levels ,but when they put the cars on the road, the NOx sent 40 times the amount into the air, contrary to the previous lab numbers. The reason was because of the Turbocharged direct injection or TDI, which in many countries is a registered trademark of VW. These TDI engines are widely used in all mainstream Volkswagen passenger cars and light commercial vehicles made by the company (particularly those sold in Europe). These TDIs became to known as “defeat devices”, which is any motor vehicle hardware, software, or design that interferes with or disables emissions controls under real-world driving conditions, even if the vehicle passes formal emissions testing. Basically, VW’s defeat device was software that was designed to know when it was being tested so that it would activate and lower emissions. However, the software didn’t work as well when on the road, which is what caused the drastic increase in emissions (possibly to save on gas).
Now when German first got the tests results, he thought something, somehow, somewhere went terribly, terribly wrong. He didn’t think it was the car, just the lab results got corrupted or someone was new in the lab or anything else but deception. He was incredulous, because they tested in California Emissions Lab and it passed the standards! But the more he thought about it, the more he went over the results, the more he thought it had to be due to a defeat device, but he kept that to himself, too scared to utter the words against such a major corporation and being “sued out of existence.”
German said nothing until 2014 at a small academic conference in San Diego when, afterwards, he published his findings on his website. To be fair, since the conference would have a handful of VW executives in attendance, German emailed VW to let them know he would be showing findings about their car, but was going to do it anonymously. Following the conference, California did its own testing again, confirming the same results the West Virginia scientists had gotten, causing the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to take notice and move into action against VW. The company, now on notice that someone was onto them, was in serious panic-mode, as any truthful answers would show they had been lying about the TDI and emission level. Rather than come clean, VW decided to stall and hide the truth, sending an email that pretty much said: “keep quiet or we are majorly screwed.” They blamed CARB’s testing instruments, the lab testers (“maybe you have graduate students who don’t know what they’re doing”), alluded that CARB was incompetent and was just completely dismissive. CARB would run tests, send results to VW who would then test and send their results back to CARB who would test VW’s finding and then send questions to VW, asking how they got the results, sending CARB’s results back to VW. Rinse. Repeat. This went on for years.
Keep in mind, during all of this, the cheating was an open secret in German factories and they were frantically trying to figure out the next course of action, like should they be honest or just keep giving everyone the runaround and keep cheating (spoiler: they decided to stick with cheating.)
VW finally came out with a plan: they’d implement a “recall” to fix the TDI and NOx issue, hoping to get CARB and the now-involved EPA off their backs. That’s right, these executives actually thought by just announcing they were fixing the problem that these major environmental organizations would wholeheartedly satisfied.
That’s not how things work, as they quickly found out.
VW’s “recall” was actually an update of their software, so that when it was tested again, it would just cheat some more. In short, they made their cheat device even better at cheating. VW engineers realized that the pollution controls would sporadically work on the road like they had been claiming, but it caused wear-and-tear on the exhaust system. So, the VW engineers turned the pollution controls off as soon as the driver moved the wheel. Apparently, these German engineers didn’t think too highly of American engineering and didn’t think they’d get caught.
German was incredulous again, CARB and the EPA were furious and majorly put off that their intelligence was insulted (and in such a baffling way), so the EPA gave VW an ultimatum: clean or we will not certify any new (2016) cars, diesel or gas, because y’all are lying liars. Here’s a great lesson: if you get caught doing something you’re not supposed to do and the person/people that caught you are being somewhat chill about it: DON’T DO THE DISHONEST THING AGAIN.
The walls came crashing down, as German executives and the CEO tried to claim ignorance and that they had no idea this was happening. No one believed them. Congress investigated to see how high this went (to the clouds), New York state filed a civil suit for fraud against VW, saying they uncovered no emails between anyone high or low on the VW ladder that suggested the company be honest about what was happening.
VW got slapped with so many state and federal sanctions that they were forced to pay over $25 BILLION in fines as well as buying back over 550,00 vehicles from irate car owners (and don’t forget about the multiple lawsuits!) And more news came out about how the German government was not as ignorant to the fact as they said they were.
This one episode will completely draw you in, possibly with frustration with how blatantly, openly and freely giant corporations can and do lie. If anything this series will remind viewers to stay educated and informed on all matters.
The Dirty Money series is available now on Netflix.