Volkswagen's Dieselgate vs. General Motors' Switchgate: Which Is Worse?

October 12, 2015

When something as massive as Volkswagen's emissions scandal breaks, it's tempting to compare the event to previous shockers -- for example, last year's ignition switch fiasco at General Motors. And as we all know, the only way to overcome temptation is to yield to it.

ALSO SEE: 'Cheat Mode' In VW Diesels: Tests Show It Boosts Performance, MPG

So, instead of continuing to make passing comparisons, we decided to get everything out in the open and ask: Which is worse, Dieselgate or Switchgate?

To answer that very complicated question, we've broken the scandals into seven discrete parts:

1. WHAT WAS THE NATURE OF THE SCANDAL?

In February 2014, General Motors announced a massive recall of Chevrolet and Pontiac vehicles to replace faulty ignition switches. Those switches could be turned to the "off" position by a nudge from a driver's knee or by the swinging weight of keys on a key ring. If that happened while a vehicle was in motion, the vehicle became difficult steer, and safety features like airbags were disabled.

In September of this year, Volkswagen abruptly halted the sale of diesel vehicles in the U.S. after being accused of equipping those vehicles with deceptive software that allowed the cars to cheat on emissions tests. When the vehicles were being tested, their full suite of emissions controls engaged, but in real-world driving conditions, the controls switched off, pumping up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. 

Loser: Tie

2. WHO WAS AT FAULT?

In both Dieselgate and Switchgate, the automakers were obviously to blame. However, GM's ignition switch was technically manufactured by a supplier, Delphi. In testimony before the U.S. Congress last week, the head of Volkswagen's American unit, Michael Horn, suggested that the company's diesel software was written by Volkswagen's own engineers. Yikes.

Loser: Volkswagen 

3. WHO GUARDED THE SECRETS?

At General Motors, an internal investigation led to the firing of 15 employees and disciplinary action against five more. One of the fired was a vice president.

Volkswagen hasn't yet conducted a full investigation -- at least not that we know of -- but during Horn's testimony, he said that three engineers were responsible. Elected officials were as incredulous as we are.

Loser: General Motors (if we can believe Horn's testimony)

4. HOW LONG WERE THOSE SECRETS KEPT?

General Motors first learned about its ignition switch problems in  2001. That's roughly a year before the first model-year 2003 vehicles affected by the scandal rolled off the assembly line. And it's a full 13 years before recalls began.

Though the Volkswagen scandal is still unfolding, it appears that the first models affected were produced in 2008 for the 2009 model year. (It's not clear how long the engineers had been planning the cheat.) Engineers in West Virginia discovered the illegal software in 2014, but the EPA didn't make any public accusations until 2015 -- about seven years after the models debuted.

Loser: General Motors 

5. HOW MANY CARS WERE AFFECTED?

When all the dust had settled, GM had recalled roughly 12.3 million Chevrolet, Daewoo, Opel, Pontiac, Saturn, and Vauxhall vehicles worldwide in conjunction with the ignition switch flaw. To date, Volkswagen says that roughly 11 million Audi, Porsche, Seat, and VW vehicles are equipped with its diesel software.

Loser: General Motors

6. WHAT WERE THE EFFECTS ON CONSUMERS?

In August, we reported that a total of 124 deaths and 275 injuries had been definitively linked to GM's flawed ignition switches. Volkswagen's emissions cheat, by contrast, hasn't resulted in any direct fatalities or injuries. However, studies suggest that some 2,300 deaths from atmospheric pollution could be linked to VW's diesel emissions.

Loser: Tie (but arguably Volkswagen)

7. HOW WERE THE AUTOMAKERS PUNISHED?

General Motors agreed to pay a $900 million criminal fine, a $35 million penalty to the National Highway Traffic Safety administration, and an untold sum in payouts to victims. (Estimates for the last item top out around $600 million.) Add in the cost of repairs, and the final sum probably falls between $2 billion and $3 billion.

That figure pales in comparison to what Volkswagen faces, though. The comany is still adding up the damages, but by our count the tally could exceed $25 billion, once fixes, fines, and other costs are accounted for. 

Loser: Volkswagen

Based on a quick tally of those scores, it would appear that the loser in this matchup is General Motors. But the difference is really just a matter of degree: both automakers have lost prestige and lots of resources.

That said, you could argue that the worst scandal in recent memory was, in fact, Ammonium Nitrategate (i.e. the Takata airbag fiasco that affected up to 34 million vehicles worldwide). Not only was the size of Takata's recall significantly larger than those from GM and Volkswagen, but Takata has been terrifically uncooperative throughout the entire investigation and recall process. That ought to count for something, no?

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