In the competition among industries to see which can act in the most irresponsible manner, we have a new winner. After nearly a decade during which banks and oil giants like BP were the epitome of corporate misconduct, the big automakers are now on top.
The news that Volkswagen inserted devices in millions of its “clean diesel” cars to disguise their pollution levels is the latest in a series of major scandals involving car companies. It comes on the heels of criminal charges against General Motors for failing to report a safety defect linked to more than 100 deaths. The Justice Department, unfortunately, deferred prosecution of those charges in a deal that required GM to pay $900 million. That looks like a bargain compared to the possibility that the EPA could sock Volkswagen, which once employed an ad campaign called Think Small, with penalties of some $18 billion.
Last year, Justice announced a deferred prosecution agreement with Toyota that required the Japanese company to pay $1.2 billion to settle charges that it tried to cover up the causes of a sudden acceleration problem. Later that year, Hyundai and Kia had to pay $100 million to settle DOJ and EPA allegations that they understated greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1 million cars and trucks.
This past July, Fiat Chrysler was hit with by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a fine of $105 million — a record for that agency, which long had a cozy relationship with the industry — for deficiencies in its recall of defective vehicles.
Even Honda, which once had a squeaky clean reputation, was fined $70 million earlier this year by NHTSA for underreporting deaths and injuries relating to defective airbags. Those airbags were produced by the Japanese company Takata, which resisted making changes in its production process despite incidents in which the devices exploded violently, sending shrapnel flying into drivers and passengers.
The ascendance of the auto industry to the top of the corporate wrongdoing charts is actually an encore for what was a long-running performance. During the 1960s, GM inadvertently gave rise to the modern public interest movement in its ham-handed response to the issues raised by a young Ralph Nader about the safety problems of its Corvair compact. The 1970s were the era of the Ford Pinto with its fragile fuel tanks that blew up in even mild rear-end collisions. The 1990s were marked by the scandal over defective tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone.
Although carmakers were not in the forefront of corporate misbehavior during the past decade, the industry’s record was far from unblemished. In 2005 VW presaged its current problems when it paid $1.1 million to the Justice Department to settle allegations that it failed to notify regulators and correct a defective oxygen sensor in more than 300,000 Golfs, Jettas and New Beetles.
And to make matters worse, through these decades the auto giants kept up a drumbeat of criticism of supposed regulatory excesses and, in the cases of GM and Chrysler, did not hesitate to ask for large bailouts when their markets collapsed.
The American love affair with the automobile has also put us in bed with corporate irresponsibility on a major scale.