Message to Michael Horn from Nicolas Boillot, 2012 VW Golf TDI Owner

Or, Your PR Firm Would Have Known Better

Dear Mr. Horn,

I’m responding to your “Message to our customers from Michael Horn, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America” posted on Volkswagen Diesel Information.

I’ve been hoping VW would “do the right thing” as the company seeks to recover from a systemic deception that fooled everyone from government agencies to owners like me. Friends and family have asked how I feel about my car, and I’ve confidently replied, “I’m disappointed, but eager to see what VW will say and do — it’s a great company!”

My enthusiasm faded when I read your “message” online. While the video that accompanies the letter acknowledges VW’s responsibility, the written piece shows no acceptance of wrongdoing or regret. Most importantly, the only substantive commitment I could ferret out is VW’s promise to work on and eventually provide “a remedy.” You acknowledge that we owners are upset, but do you really think it’s because our vehicles are out of compliance? Because we need a remedy to bring them into compliance?

Like many TDI owners, I comparison-shopped for my car. In my case I compared the Golf TDI and its gas mileage to the Toyota Prius. I know several TDI owners who made the same comparison. Having driven a Prius for seven years, I was looking for a car with a bit more “zip.” But I also wanted to remain as environmentally friendly as my budget would allow. The TDI won out with its terrific driving experience and superior fuel economy… combined with VW’s amazing, uh, clean-diesel technology. The TDI allowed me to feel a bit better about buying a new car, which in itself is not an environmentally-friendly act!

I had nearly four years of great driving experience and over 75,000 miles in which I averaged 42.5 miles per gallon. I felt good about my infrequent trips to the diesel pump. Yet all that ended a few weeks ago. How do I feel now?

  • Dirty: for over 75,000 miles, my car has been emitting 40 times the allowable amount of emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Embarrassed: I am not proud to drive this car. If I had another, I would keep the TDI in the garage until I could sell it.
  • Nervous: I always had a happy feeling when I followed another TDI in traffic. Now I switch my climate control to “recirculate,” hoping to avoid the emissions.
  • Angry: I trusted VW, and VW lied.
  • Regretful: I spoke highly of VW to friends and family, and VW lied.
  • Suspicious: Earlier this week I had to get a bearing replaced on one of my wheels. The technician suggested roughly $1,000 of other fixes. The most expensive of these was replacing my rear rotors for the brakes. He showed them to me, noting how they were “streaked and pitted.”
My dealer in Northampton, MA still proudly displays the TDI poster… when will this come down?

- Is this a problem, I asked.
- Well, you might feel it hesitating when you use your brakes.
- Will it have trouble braking?
- No, he answered.
- The rotors look quite thick to me, I said. Don’t they have a lot of life left?
- Yes, the technician replied.
- Am I harming the car when I use these brakes?
- No.

Needless to say, won’t replace the rotors.

A few months ago, I would have thought, “he’s a bit zealous about selling me stuff.” Now I think, “Just another way VW wants to rip me off.”

I believe the message you posted on Volkswagen Diesel Information puts compliance above all other concerns. It reads as if lawyers wrote it, with clauses like “we are working to develop a remedy that will meet the expectations of the government agencies.” If lawyers are worried about such expectations, your PR team should be worried about consumers, not government agencies. PR people would understand that in this case broken confidence trumps lack of compliance. VW has lost the confidence of hundreds of thousands of TDI owners, and possibly millions of customers who want the brand they drive to represent the values they espouse.

I offer advice from one customer who knows something of PR and branding: This is not a time for the faint of heart or legalistic protectionism. Great leadership, which often flies under the radar in good times, emerges in times like these and can inspire a generation of loyal customers and advocates.

While many crises end in resignations and long periods of rebuilding consumer confidence, a few end up with enormous enhancements to the business’ reputation: we all know the 1982 Johnson & Johnson response to cyanide-laced Tylenol, and how the company’s extraordinary handling of the crisis helped seal its reputation for decades. Doing the right thing by its retailers and customers may have been one of J&J’s best decisions ever, allowing the Tylenol brand to maintain its dominance after a potentially ruinous crisis.

What should one of the most powerful automobile companies in the world do? It should think about its customers’ primary concerns. It should go above and beyond in taking responsibility and responding to the crisis. It should sacrifice short-term profits and put all resources towards ensuring that current customers become life-long customers. This is a long game, and if VW treats this incident as an opportunity to act heroically, it will seal its place at the top of the automobile market.

In my mind there’s only one way to do this well: take back these cars at a minimum of pre-dieselgate market value, and offer a “per-highly-polluting mile driven” discount on a new car. You will be able to bring all those used cars into compliance and sell them again on the used car market, minimizing your losses. You will also put hundreds of thousands of additional drivers into VWs and become a more dominant brand on the roads.

But if you make it all about compliance, I have a feeling I’m not the only one who will be thinking “If and when I can get rid of this Golf TDI, I’ll be buying a Prius.”

We TDI owners often care about more than compliance!