The trial of ex-Audi boss Rupert Stadler is symbolic of the crisis in the auto industry. There is no peace in the diesel scandal.
For the auto industry, environmental laws are still not progress, but a declaration of war Photo: R.Price/snapshot-photography
These are turbulent times for the German automotive industry. In Munich, judges have allowed the charges against ex-Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and three senior managers to go forward. The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 30. The prosecution accuses them of "fraud, indirect false certification and criminal advertising." Stadler knew about the emissions manipulations in Audi diesel engines at the end of September 2015 at the latest, but nevertheless did not prevent the sale of the cars, is the accusation against him.
VW boss Winterkorn will probably be the next person to stand trial in the diesel scandal. Over the next two or three years, it will be discussed almost daily and in detail how Germany’s flagship industry systematically deceived its customers, politicians, supervisory bodies and the entire public. There will be no peace about the diesel scandal in the long term.
But these are not just turbulent times, they are simply bad times for the German automotive industry. Their business is lousy. The faltering sales of its fossil-fuel vehicles, which make up more than 95 percent of the model range, are not being pushed with scrappage premiums after all; the stockpiles of combustion vehicles are growing in the backyards of the corporations. Tesla and the Chinese have overtaken them in the future market for electric cars. In the cities, the two-wheeler offensive is booming; bicycles are the new toilet paper. And then there are the stricter regulations on fines.
All this adds up to almost a paradigm shift. The dominance of the old fossil-fuel car is fading, as is the innocent air of its corporate leaders. Even after the diesel scandal had long since been exposed, they continued to unabashedly let thousands of cheated cars with manipulated engines roll off the production line.
Criminal machinations of an industry
What has been left out of the reporting so far, and also in the Stadler case, is the damage to health. What has long been labeled "trickery" is the criminal machinations of an industry that has significantly increased the excess mortality caused by air pollution. Strictly speaking, then, this is a homicide. In the European Union, exhaust fumes and toxic particles in the air cost the lives of around 400,000 people every year; in Germany, the figure is said to be 80,000.
The victims have no face and no name; we do not see them lying gasping in intensive care units. And their number is not reported on a daily basis. They are buried in statistical noise. They are the collateral damage of an industry that has never understood environmental laws as progress but, to this day, as a declaration of war. It produces bigger glittering dream machines every year, and the proportion of SUVs has risen to one-third. Can it be a little more monstrous?
For the car companies, it won’t be business as usual for years to come, but a crisis. And from the start of the trial in September, they will be forced to deal with what is probably the biggest industrial scandal of the post-war period. Judges and courts have played an outstandingly positive role in this scandal. Where politicians and the Federal Motor Transport Authority went to their knees before the automotive industry, the hour of the judiciary struck. The previous court rulings on the diesel scandal and the thick air on German roads formed the major corrective on which environmental associations and civil society could rely.
It is to be hoped that this will also be the case in the Stadler case and later in the Winterkorn case. The car bosses and many of their managers will disappear into prisons. But it is not Stadler and Winterkorn who are in the dock, but VW, Audi, Porsche and Co. There are no black sheep. There is a soot-blackened herd called the automotive industry, which for years has been turning left and driving right – consistently in the wrong direction.