The car business is a dirty one.
This week, we got an unpleasant reminder of just how dirty when news broke of allegations that Volkswagen cheated U.S. emissions tests. The company admits up to 11 million of its cars could be involved, each one spewing 10 to 40 times the allowed amount of certain pollutants. You cannot clean that up.
It is not the first case of cheating in the auto industry, and as regulators seek to curb emissions further, it will not be the last. Here are a handful of auto industry's the more egregious cheats and scandals.
GM's deadly ignition switch
General Motors knew about a fault with some of its ignition switches for nearly 10 years before issuing a major recall last year. Affected cars could accidentally switch off, disabling airbags, as well as power assistance for brakes and steering. Families of people who died as a result of the defect were offered at least $1-million (U.S.) in compensation. GM paid a $900-million settlement to U.S. regulators to avoid criminal charges.
Dirty diesels: the prequel
This one is like déjà vu. In the 1990s, heavy-duty diesel engine manufacturers were caught building motors that could cheat emissions tests. Sound familiar? You would have thought – hoped – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have learned how to catch cheaters, but apparently not. The $1-billion settlement the engine makers paid to the EPA will likely pale in comparison to the fines VW will face.
Chicken tax dodge
In an effort to avoid paying the so-called chicken tax – a 25-per-cent tariff on light trucks imported into the United States when Lyndon Johnson was president – Subaru put two plastic rear-facing seats in the back of its tiny Brat pickup. This somehow meant the company could classify it as a car, thereby avoiding the tariff.
Takata's airbag grenades
Airbags are supposed to save your life, but not these. Some airbags made by the Japanese supplier Takata could send shrapnel flying through the cabin. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated 19.2 million cars were involved in resulting recalls. In 2014, The New York Times claimed Takata knew the airbags were faulty long before the story got out, but Takata strongly denied the allegations.
Hyundai/Kia inflated fuel economy
In 2012, the EPA discovered some vehicles from Hyundai and Kia were not as fuel-efficient as the auto makers claimed. Combined, they were fined $300-million by U.S. regulators. In Canada, the companies paid compensation to owners, in part to cover the additional and unexpected fuel costs they incurred. Ford was involved in a similar scandal, exploiting a testing loophole to make certain cars seem more efficient than they were.
Cheating in motorsport
Professional motorsport is home to some of the most brilliant cheaters in the automotive world. In many instances, what they were doing was not exactly against the rules, it was just too clever. See: the Brabham "fan car", which sucked itself to the road; the six-wheeled Tyrrell; McLaren's rear brake pedal; Williams' active suspension; and most things NASCAR's Smokey Yunick built in the 1960s.