Why Dieselgate Could See Volkswagen Retell the Legend of the Phoenix

It's always darkest just before the dawn

Exactly one year ago, on Friday 18 September 2015, EPA publicly announced that Volkswagen has been installing emission-cheating devices in diesel engines found in cars produced between 2009 and 2015.

That coincides with the moment Volkswagen found itself in front of a marching tornado that can not only throw the Fujita scale into mockery but also mutilate a carmaker for life, if not sending it on the verge of obsolescence.

Over the past twelve months, the scandal and its entanglements proved to be as whimsical as a deck of cards. Just like a twister touching the earth surface, Dieselgate started spinning debris of its own.

Lawsuits in Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland, $15 billion settlements in the United States, the villain partnership with Bosch, clientele and financial losses, shattered credibility, criminal investigations in Norway, police-raided VW offices in Italy.

Subsequently, media outlets had a mixed coverage of the fiasco, with some over-calculating their vehemence while others criticized Volkswagen with plenty élan. 

But beyond any shadow of doubt, the aftermath is darker than black.

However, they say it's always darkest just before the dawn. And while we, as journalists, should refrain from cracking hammers and formulating sentences, we're entitled to express educated and informed opinions.

Since day one of their cheating exposure, Volkswagen reacted. I'm guessing no one slept for days in the marketing and PR departments trying to handle the magnitude of the wrongdoing. 

And they worked to shift as much focus away from the scandal with everything they had: special-edition models, multiple changes in trim levels, even a fancier edition for the Caddy and a Beetle Denim limited run which I doubt will ever come close to mediocre sales figures.

They also came up with a new TSI engine and particulate filters for their gasoline units. VW's been trying so hard that I'm beginning to smell a hint of despair in their efforts.

But by far their most ambitious endeavor clings on a trend that is currently riding on high winds: electrification.

Almost everybody in the car industry has been doing it or at least had a go at it, with more or less favorable results. But for Volkswagen, which only had the e-Golf and the e-up! as electric ambassadors, a green plan that comprises 30 new electric cars based on three EV platforms by 2025 looks like a Sisyphean task.

Yet history is a cyclic affair. In 1974, Volkswagen was fined with $120,000 over the use of defeat devices similar to the ones that ignited Dieselgate. In the years that followed, Volkswagen was the first carmaker to adhere to ISO 14000, a family of norms created to help companies become more environmentally friendly and abide by the existing law and regulation sets.

So perhaps all Volkswagen needs is a wake-up call and a kick in the teeth every 40 years or so. Although, this doesn't guarantee that their strategy will work.

As I see it, the technology behind diesel engines simply can't cope anymore with the increasingly drastic emissions standards. Once more and more car manufacturers will decide to call it a day for diesels, the blank space carved by their extinction will leave room for electric and hybrid powertrains - a process that's already well underway.

So if Volkswagen manages to make its electric/hybrid signature half as prevalent as the TDI lettering that was once a sure-shot favorite among clients without releasing the throttle of resilience, I think we might just witness the brand's rebirth.

Of course, a million different scenarios are waiting to happen, but if there's even the slight possibility that Volkswagen will turn this around, I'm imagining they are going all in on all or nothing.

And this likelihood alone is enough to send a chill or two down the spine of Toyota, Nissan, Renault and even Tesla.

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