Letting them off the hookWe cannot entirely blame companies and the government for playing the consumers for suckers. Korean consumers may have earned such treatment. The shocking mea culpa from Volkswagen admitting that it tampered with emissions testing for its diesel vehicles took place only four months ago. Consumers felt betrayed and called for tough actions against such a deceitful business practice.
But what panned out afterwards was startling and even embarrassing. Before the scandal, Volkswagen sold 5,898 units of diesel cars in Korea in August. In October - when the news hit - the figure went down to 3,111, understandably.
Then, not so understandably, the figure shot up to 7,585 in November and 5,191 in December.
In Germany, Volkswagen sales fell 4.8 percent last year from the previous year. The group’s overall sales rose 4.4 percent on year thanks to an 18.6 percent gain in sales of Porsches, but Volkswagen alone underperformed Germany’s total vehicle-sales growth of 5.6 percent last year. In Korea, sales of Volkswagen jumped 16 percent and its luxury brand Audi rose 17.7 percent. Consumers rushed to buy the German cars despite the emissions fraud - because of a special sales promotion. Volkswagen wagered that a discount meant more to Koreans than a colossal deception, and it was right.
The promise of clean diesel turned out to be an utter lie. Diesel vehicles, which were encouraged by governments because they got better mileage and emitted fewer carbon emissions, are now known to exhaust more toxic nitrogen oxides and ultrafine particulates that cause respiratory and heart diseases. This is why the United States has stricter regulations on diesel exhausts. With major carmakers either exposed by regulators or admitting to cheating by building cars that do better in tests than in real life, experts predict the eventual disappearance of diesel power.
European countries have toughened regulations on diesel engines. The British government removed various tax incentives to reduce the number of diesel cars on its roads. France plans to raise the diesel fuel price to make it the same as petroleum prices within five years. While most countries are trying to discourage diesel-powered vehicles, Korea is going in the opposite direction. Diesel car sales remain robust. The market share of diesel cars actually edged up last year. Local consumers are unconcerned with the full picture. They cherry-pick the facts that concern them.
Diesel cars offer many benefits to their owners. The cost of fuel is cheaper, mileage is better and their engines are powerful. Who cares if they’re terrible for the environment and public health? Particulate matter, a combination of miniscule particles found in the air, is called the biggest cancer-causing substance by the World Health Organization. Particle pollution has become a growing concern for Korea. Half of the dust particles in our air are believed to have come from China. The other half is home-bred mostly due to diesel exhaust. Many have called for a reduction in diesel vehicles. But consumer response remained unaffected by the bad publicity and pollution concerns over diesel emissions. Customers preferred saving extra money more than penalizing a deceitful company or worrying about worsening air polution.
Volkswagen’s CEO apologized repeatedly to American consumers and offered compensation of $1,000 for each vehicle owner. It was less humble towards our consumers. It snubbed the government’s repeated demand for a broad recall. Even for the recalled cars, it refused to come up with consumer compensation claiming there was no problem with mileage and the cars’ functions. The automaker doesn’t seem to be that concerned about bad publicity in Korea. In retrospect, the company cannot be entirely blamed. Why should it go through such trouble when scandalous corporate crimes get forgiven or are tolerated in exchange for a few bargain offers? If consumers do not want to be taken for granted, they must keep watch on corporate activities and use their power to penalize companies for unethical or criminal activities. No companies will respect customers that can be easily be bought off through bargains and small rewards.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 20, Page 30
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Sunny
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency