Dead car walking
August 26, 2016
I usually like to keep a car for a long time. Not until it rusts away in the driveway, but typically 150,000 miles, sometimes a little more if it is still holding together. I also take reasonably good care of them with regular oil changes and service. OK, so maybe not quite as rigid at the manual recommends on some stuff, but the major stuff gets taken care of.
My current car is a diesel Volkswagen. I bought it out of a sense of moral obligation. If I'm going to live in a very impractical location (30 mile round trip for a quart of milk), it seemed like the ethical thing to do. Buy a car that got the best fuel mileage I could find. It helped assuage my moral sacrifice that the car is just plain fun to drive. I love it.
It turns out the car is a criminal. It's one of those fraudulent Volkswagens that is programmed to cheat on the emissions tests. VW couldn't get their "Clean Diesel" cars to actually be clean, so they did the next best thing. They cheated, and programmed the computer chip to recognize when it was connected to the emissions testing equipment. When plugged into the tester, the VW runs incredibly clean. It also reports significantly lower fuel mileage, and produces terrible, little-old-lady performance while connected to the tester. But when they unplug the tester, this crooked little monster knows it has been set free. It's no longer being supervised, and reverts to its criminal ways. In this case, the criminal ways are that it performs like a sports car, produces better than 50 mpg on an average day, and apparently emits a fog of toxic exhaust gases about 40 times greater than it does when connected to the test protocol.
Think of it as the Russian track and field athlete providing urine samples to the Olympic testers — samples bought from the Mormon missionary standing outside the booth.
So VW is in big trouble all around the world, and is spending a minimum of $15 billion, in the U.S. alone, to settle with the owners of the criminal cars, and who knows how much more to pay fines and penalties to the EPA and similar agencies around the world. There isn't a way to fix it, so VW is going to buy me a new car. They will pay me about $18,000 for a six-year old car with over 100,000 miles on it. It didn't cost a whole lot more than that brand new. The bad news is that they aren't going to buy it for a few months. Maybe December, maybe next spring. The practical reality is that they have every incentive to drag it out because it's costing them $15 billion, and even if that didn't slow them down, the logistics of buying 500,000 cars in the U.S. alone have to be daunting.
They are going to send them to the crusher. I thought they might be able to make some repair and sell them again in China or someplace that doesn't care about emissions as much. But the court ruled that they can't just shift the illegal pollution into somebody else's lungs. They have to come off the road.
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So the maintenance issues seem pretty straightforward. If the car is going to the crusher, it's certainly not getting a new timing belt. I might put a quart of oil in it, but I'm not about to pay for an oil change. If the tires really begin to look scary, I'll put the snows on it in October. They won't pay me a dime more if it goes to the crusher with new tires.
It all seemed so easy, until the "check engine" light came on this week. Usually that's some software adjustment or something minor. Sometimes it's something major that will leave me standing on the side of the road. With VW, it could just mean that nobody is maintaining their crusher-bound cars any more, and the service department is terribly lonesome and wishes some of us would stop by.
I've tried ignoring it, but I'm sufficiently OCD about taking care of the car that it really bothers me. None of the usual pokes, prods, kicks or curses have cured it. I just can't put black tape over the light. So I guess I'll take it in to the dealer and at least get them to tell me what it means. I can make the decision on what to do, whether to fix something, ride it out, or park it after I know whether it is something that matters.
Besides, it will be a good opportunity to start shopping for a new car. There's a Subaru dealer just a couple of blocks away.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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