James Baggott: Car industry must be whiter than white – now more than ever

James Baggott: Car industry must be whiter than white – now more than ever

THERE’S another huge storm brewing over the battered and bruised German car industry.

This time the thunderbolt isn’t an emissions scandal – although the fall-out from that has far from gone away. No, this time it’s a tale of collusion. One of secret talks between rival manufacturers, designed to help fix designs on common parts to lower prices for their own gain.

The pages of this latest scandal are slowly unfolding in Germany. In July, it was reported that Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi, Daimler’s Mercedes and BMW may have used industry committee meetings to fix the size of tanks for AdBlue.

The EU has been investigating, and while it has provided little detail, it has said there are ‘concerns several German car manufacturers may have violated EU antitrust rules prohibiting cartels and restrictive business practice’.

Now, in the latest twist, Daimler has claimed whistle blower status in the hope that it’ll avoid fines.

It’s yet another stain on a once-proud and illustrious car industry.

Let’s face it, German car manufacturers have been having it away for years. Their products have commanded huge premiums and the profits have been rolling in.

In these times of great success, it takes strong leadership not to turn greedy. Money corrupts decision-making, and when you’re swilling in huge, seemingly endless profits, the temptation to increase those further is hard to resist.

Underhand act

Take the VW Group emissions scandal. It was a devious, heinous underhand act, but one it seems to have got away with incredibly lightly. Look at the halls of any motor show or the new product onslaught from Germany and it seems undisturbed by the most shocking scandal ever to befall the car industry.

Remember, this is a group that purposefully designed its cars to know when they were being emissions-tested. It manufactured a clever cheat in the cars’ brains that spotted when they were on a rolling road and fraudulently adjusted the emissions to suit.

It was so clever, so advanced, it went unnoticed for years. Even engineers from rival manufacturers – people who pull these cars apart on a daily basis – couldn’t work out how they were managing it.

If it hadn’t been for humble researcher John German and his studies, the world would have still been ignorant to the scam today – and these cars that we thought were cleaner than they were would have continued to pollute more than they should.

I honestly think the VW Group has got away with the whole sorry affair far too easily. Yes, heads have rolled (and so they should have) and yes, there have been fines and wrist-slapping. But buyers have already long forgotten the cheating, while owners of those cars affected are seemingly uninterested in getting them updated. And what incentive is there for governments to really punish these firms when so often they’re absolutely crucial to a country’s economy?

If these are the sorts of scandals being discovered now, what could happen when even bigger profits from life-changing autonomous cars are commonplace? What corners could be cut then to cheat systems? Would you trust a car manufacturer that’s been caught bending the truth, tricking the system in the past, with your life while you sit back and read the paper as its system drives for you?

And what about all that data these firms will be gathering about your daily routine and your life? Your car will know where you go, when and for how long – and that’s just the start.

Car firms are already talking about ‘deep learning’. That’s data on humungous scales, the likes of which few industries have ever captured before. Would you trust that data with a firm that has knowingly put dirtier cars into the environment than it said it would, purely to bolster profits? Ethically, that was wrong but still got the go-ahead by someone, somewhere along the line. Just what could get the go-ahead in the future?

Now, more than ever before, as new technologies and innovations dramatically change the way we interact with our cars, we need to be able to trust the firms behind them. We need to know that while they might be big businesses interested in monumental profits, they’ve still got our interests at the forefront of their minds.

One manufacturer I spoke to recently admitted that one of the biggest barriers to consumers accepting autonomous driving was trust. They said passengers were constantly worried the systems were on and working and found it hard to relax as a result.

But can you blame them? Is it any wonder they question the technology when they know what’s happened before? And to be honest, when I can’t get the automatic boot to shut properly every time on my long-termer, is it any wonder people worry?

In an age when cars will become less machine and more artificial intelligence-led companion, car firms need to not only be seen as whiter than white, they need to BE whiter than white. That change must start now. Scandals such as those that are all too frequently rocking this industry need to rapidly become a horrible and distant thing of the past.

James Baggott is the founder of Car Dealer Magazine and chief executive officer of parent company @BaizeGroup, an automotive services provider. He now spends most of his time on Twitter @CarDealerEd and annoying the rest of us.

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