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Volkswagen Might Fix Its Diesels, But Customer Relations Are The Harder Fix


BARACK OBAMA: There's been another mass shooting in America.


That's President Obama speaking what happened today on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg in Southern Oregon. Douglas County sheriff John Hanlin has confirmed that 10 people were killed today. Seven more were injured. Police killed the shooter, a 20-year-old man. President Obama spoke in the White House briefing room earlier this evening.


OBAMA: This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.


Another story we're following is what Volkswagen scandal has done to sales of its cars. The German automaker has admitted to rigging software in diesel models in order to get around emissions tests. And while other companies, including GM, Ford, Honda and Toyota, also saw double-digit gains in sales for September, VW was flat. Several of its models actually saw losses from last year.

SHAPIRO: What happens with sales going forward depends on how Volkswagen fixes its diesel vehicles and, perhaps just as importantly, how it will fix its image. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: To tell this story, we have to understand first a fairly basic engineering challenge. Margaret Woolridge has been helping us understand the technical parts of this story. She's a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan. Woolridge says there are two competing challenges when dealing with modern engines - emissions and fuel economy.

MARGARET WOOLRIDGE: As you get more efficient - so you're trying to meet that challenge - at the same time, you're limited by the emissions out the tailpipe. And those technologies are at odds with each other. The things that we can do to reduce the air toxics tend to reduce the efficiency of the engines.

GLINTON: That's the tension. From the get-go, diesels are more efficient, and they're dirtier. For a company, the challenge is, how do you get more fuel efficient while keeping the car clean? That's where Volkswagen's TDI technology came in, and it's also where the cheat came in. It was a technology that was supposed to clean the exhaust. It's called the aftertreatment, and it's where VW got into trouble.

WOOLRIDGE: What you saw was a choice to go with a specific aftertreatment technology that was particularly challenging to meet the fuel economy side of it. That workaround, for lack of a better way of describing it - that workaround was directly to make sure they could meet fuel economy standards.

GLINTON: Many of the half-million VW and Audi diesel car owners in the U.S. are wondering if any potential fix will not only hurt the fuel economy but the residual value of their cars. Fixing the vehicles is a huge, huge engineering and software challenge. Peter McClintock is an emissions consultant. He found discrepancies in Volkswagen's diesel claims even before news broke. I reached him by phone. He says the challenge for Volkswagen could be insurmountable, especially now that they have to do it on the up and up.

PETER MCCLINTOCK: You know, maybe they'll come to an agreement with the EPA where they'll come to some other way of reducing an equivalent amount of NOx emissions through some other source.

GLINTON: Beyond fixing the cars, there are many other ways for Volkswagen to deal with the problem of cars that are on the road but still polluting. The company could buy back outstanding vehicles or compensate buyers by settling the growing number of class-action suits. McClintock says the bigger question for us all is how to stop the cheating. He says there needs to be real-world emissions tests.

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah. I mean the way to prevent cheating entirely is to measure vehicles on the road, and I'm going to say as well as, you know, doing the existing laboratory testing.

GLINTON: Volkswagen diesel cars are legal to drive while the company figures out what it's going to do, but there are no details from the company except for a reassuring statement from the new CEO.

MICHELLE KREBS: The question I want to know is, what is Volkswagen going to do, and when are they going to do it? But I'm sure it's their question too (laughter).

GLINTON: Michelle Krebs is with autotrader.com. She says Volkswagen diesel buyers tend to be more sophisticated consumers, and they're likely paying more attention to bad car news.

KREBS: This is not normal because it's being perceived by the consumer as an intentional deceit, and that has generated a lot of mistrust. And once you lose that, then it becomes much more difficult to win that - the consumers back.

GLINTON: Consumers have done a lot of forgiving of car companies in the last few years. Krebs and other analysts say how soon VW makes a fix and how it handles it will determine how much forgiveness Volkswagen will get, if any. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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