Volkswagen Debacel: Who is to Blame?

The panel found diminished trust to be a major contemporary problem, writes Lars-Gunnar Mattsson, professor emeritus, Stockholm School of Economics and research manager at Misum.

The Volkswagen scandal was the theme for an interdisciplinary panel debate in Uppsala December 2. It was arranged by faculty and student associations at the Ångströms laboratory that houses university institutions for natural science and technology. The panel was composed of five researchers representing physics, technology, political science, economics and management. (A law professor had to cancel due to sickness). Some 50 students and faculty attended and many were active in the discussion. I was invited to participate in the panel. The discussion covered many aspects of the so called “dieselgate” such as how did the cheating and its discovery take place, who were involved, how can it be explained, what are the consequences for the VW, for the automotive industry, for the environment and for society at large? Who is to blame? How can the risks for similar cheating be eliminated or at least diminished?  What is e.g. the role and responsibility of business managers and employees, politicians, government agencies, civil society, education, research, media?  Since the investigation of the specific scandal is far from concluded we could only speculate based on information in media. Some of the discussion points were as follows. We found it likely that more than a few software engineers and low/medium level managers in VW and in the automotive industry knew of the cheating before it was discovered. The role of the international environmental organization, ICCT, to initiate and carry out an independent investigation was found to be crucial. We discussed how VW’s huge investment in a “Clean Diesel” campaign in the US since 2008, and the goal to become the world’ s largest auto manufacturer, might initiate a manipulation of the software to meet regulatory requirements and to manage the goal conflict between low levels of NOx and CO2 emissions. We found quite large differences between European and US markets, regulations and test procedures.

Societal trust and confidence (“tillit”) is diminished due to such cheating. This is an important negative effect. More elaborate test and control processes are required. The panel found diminished trust to be a major contemporary problem, as is evidenced also in how academia is governed.

The audience was equipped with mentometers and was asked before and after the debate to identify who, among 5 alternatives was most responsible for the cheating in the VW case. An interesting result was that, even if “top management” came first both before and after, “society at large” rose from last to second place after the debate. We all, not least in academic education and research have important roles to play.

Written by: Lars-Gunnar Mattsson, professor emeritus, Stockholm School of Economics and research manager at Misum


Göran Nilsson, Uppsala universitet, Göran Larsson, SLU teknik, Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, Uppsala universitet , Ulf Danielsson, Uppsala universitet and Misums Lars-Gunnar Mattsson.


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