Tuesday 25 Oct 2016

Das Scandal
David Simmonds

The first car I drove required the athletic skills of a bobsled runner: it refused to start from a standing position. The second had a quaint habit of fading out on any road that was more than walking distance from a repair facility. The third required the nerve of a Russian Roulette player: one cold day in six, usually the very day I had something very Important to do, it would not start at all.

Let me declare right away that I have appreciated the steady increase in the general reliability of automobiles over the past thirty years or so. I tip my hat to the engineers who have worked diligently to make sure my car starts and stays running regardless of position, location or weather.

I understand a car is a depreciating hunk of metal.

I like to think of myself as understanding that a car is just a depreciating hunk of metal used to take you from point A to point B; that there is very little point in having an emotional association with the darn thing. That, of course, would be to ignore all of the effort to appeal to our self-image that goes into the marketing of cars.

Do you want to turn heads and generate flirty gestures? Buy a Lexus! Do you want to show the world you’ve arrived? Buy a Buick! Perhaps, you want to show the world that you care about fuel economy, performance and the environment all in one swell swoop. In that case, you would, until a days ago, have bought or at least shortlisted, a diesel powered Volkswagen.

Along with everyone else, I am gobsmacked at the stupidity of the company in trying to fool an emissions test. It’s not because it could have directed its brainpower towards trying to meet the standard rather than trying to game it. Nor is it because the outgoing company president claimed he didn’t know anything about the scheme, which is just about as bad an indictment of his tenure as if had admitted to participating in it. Nor is it because Volkswagen and its employees face gazillions of dollars in possible fines, penalties and lawsuits do we think the company is stupid.

No, it’s because of the instant and lasting damage to the company’s hard won reputation.

The person who bought the diesel-powered product now feels like a sucker. The owner of the non diesel-engined Volkswagen feels like he has been set up for some second shoe of untrustworthiness to drop. Heck, I never bought a Volkswagen and I feel personally offended. I’m only just beginning to realize that prior to Das Scandal Volkswagen conjured a warm and fuzzy association, probably a result of its commercials.

My favourite Volkswagen commercial is from the 1960s.

My favourite commercial is from the middle 1960s. It’s about two aging Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They boast they can write a song about anything. Then a new request stumps them.

The new request is for a commercial about the technical upgrades in the Beetle, such as dish pistons optimized, compression ratio and so forth. The message:  Volkswagen focuses on continual technical improvements to the car, although such improvements aren’t glamorous.

A close second, for me, is the commercial that ran until just a few months ago featuring two little girls running lemonade stand. They spy a Passat coming down the street and adroitly flip their sign over so the lemonade now sells for a dollar not a quarter. The message: people will think you’re driving an expensive car when really you’re not.

Now, all that goodwill has gone ‘poof.’

I realize Volkswagen has plenty of company on the shady side of the automotive street. There were millions more vehicles recalled than were sold in Canada last year. However, the fact that other people shoot themselves in the foot doesn’t make it any more acceptable when you do it to yourself.

All of which makes you wonder why or, perhaps, explains why, Google, with a driverless car, and Apple, with an electric car, are poised to enter the automobile business. Google announced its car has a perfect safety record, although it has been involved in sixteen accidents. Perfect, in the sense that the program that runs the car obeys highway rules to the letter and has never, driverlessly, created an accident; but sixteen accidents in the sense the program operating the car can’t predict and adapt to the imperfections of other human drivers, like being rear-ended as a result of a sudden safety stop.

Maybe the driverless car operates best in a driverless world.

Intelligent machines, which don’t sense any need to cover up failings, may build the cars. Maybe the marketing of cars should be at arm’s length from those human factors that create warm and fuzzy feelings about lumps of metal.

Who’s up for a singalong of, “Dish pistons optimized, compression ratio”? Just for the good old times, of course. It recalls a time when even supposedly reliable cars required bobsledding skills.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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