Rambling Man: Help! I Feel Terrible About My Volkswagen

Herbie

Josh,

I have a 2010 Volkswagen TDI. I bought it in no small part because it was a clean diesel. Low emissions! Great millage! I even got a sweet tax credit for buying a green car. It’s the first new car I ever owned after having a few pieces of crap in my early life. I paid cash that I saved while in grad school.  It’s also super fun to drive. At the time I remember thinking, “Holy shit, how can a car with this much acceleration have low emissions?”

Ha! Now I feel like this:

no one who speaks german could be an evil man

I feel terrible because I now own what has always been a gross polluter. To put this in context I let it mellow, sort my recycling, and reuse everything to death. If I observe a house guest not turning off the water when they brush their teeth, I judge them for all time.

I wasn’t planning on replacing this car any time soon. Like, the car before this was at 250,000 miles before the odometer stopped moving. I drove it for 4 years after that and then gave it to my dad. He’s both cheaper and more dedicated to using things until they die than I’ll ever be.

What do I do now? I can’t really afford to buy a new car. I guess I could get a different used car, but ugh, I planned on driving this thing until it was scrap metal. Do I trust that if I register for / accept the money from VW I can still be a part of a class action lawsuit? I’m leaning towards no. They say yes, but please. They also said they sold me a clean diesel!

So what do I do? Accept their crappy deal? Wait for something better? Sit on my hands and feel bad about driving until a better solution comes up?

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I personally wish that everyone who bought one of these TDIs could return it for a full refund, because then Volkswagen would be super-duper-screwed, and that would be fun — not because I hate Volkswagen in particular, but because I hate big companies in general. More precisely, I relish seeing them founder under the weight of their own greed.

This doesn’t happen very often, because greed is the great engine of prosperity in modern times, but, you know, I can hope, right?

The trouble with my dream for how you and other TDI owners will exact revenge, as with so many dreams, is lawyers. There’s a compelling argument that under U.S. consumer protection law, you should be able to return your TDI for a full refund because it violates the implied warranty of merchantability. The trouble is that if the dealership refuses to take your car and give you the money, you can’t just leave the keys on the counter and waltz into their underground Scrooge McDuck money pool to sort things out on your own. That would be grand larceny and also, maybe, burglary.

Instead, you’d have to sue, and that would require lawyers, and Volkswagen has more of them than you could, and better ones, and ones with more resources than you can afford. How do I know this about you? Because if it weren’t true, you wouldn’t have written asking what to do about your TDI. Instead, you’d be asking whether it would be too ostentatious to remove the engine and buy a team of racehorses to pull your TDI like a carriage.

Because of the Great Lawyer Imbalance — or, you know, the Great Money Imbalance — state governments will usually investigate and sue on behalf of individual consumers. That’s already happening in this case. More than 200 class action lawsuits have been filed, so now you have to kick back and wait for the resolution. VW is offering affected owners $500 Visa gift cards and $500 vouchers for services at VW dealerships, which come without any waiver of rights, and you should probably take those things, because: free money.

A thing you could do that would be stupid but fun would be to use the dealership voucher to buy a bunch of dumb VW merchandise — T-shirts, hats, beer cozies, etc. — and then use the Visa card to get all the VW stuff customized with added-on anti-VW slogans, e.g., under the VW logo, add embroidery that says, “is lousy.”

In terms of what to drive, I suppose you probably have to stick with the car you have. VW is apparently working on a fix that will make the cars actually pass emissions without losing gas mileage, which is great. It’s even greater once you find out that it involves a device called a “flow transformer,” which should make your VW way more hip hop than it ever was. (Note the total absence of the brand in this list of iconic hip hop cars.)

I gather that much of what bothers you about this situation is that, despite your best efforts to be friendly to the environment, you have been duped into hurting it, and effectively trapped in that position. For this, there is no remedy. It is just a more salient version of so many elements of modern living. For example, I would like to buy clothes and shoes manufactured in a way that doesn’t exploit workers, foreign or domestic, and I can mostly do that, thanks to the internet and the happy accident of my middle-class birth and ensuing access to resources. But my children go through shoes at an alarming rate, and because children are fundamentally absent-minded, they don’t keep track of the decline of their footwear; they just come to me right before bedtime and say, “Oh, dad, by the way, there’s a huge hole in the bottom of my sneaker and water keeps getting in.”

In a perfect world, which is to say, a world where I didn’t have to contend with the differing parenting styles of my children’s other parent or the itchy CPS-dialing fingers of my children’s school administrators, I would just wrap the offending sneaker in duct tape and order some union-made sneakers online to be delivered in a week or so. But in real life, I get the kids to bed and go to Target to buy some cheap sneakers made by foreign children.

In a perfect world, I also wouldn’t have to drive to buy sneakers, but I live in a post-industrial city in Connecticut, so I have a 40-minute bike ride each way, which I do sometimes, or an hour-long bus ride combined with a half-hour walk, or a 15-minute drive.

I don’t mean to say that we should not endeavor to live justly. We should. But there are limits to what each of us can do, individually, to remedy structural inequities. Companies are big and we are little, and we need governments or revolutions or trenchant Twitter hashtags to change the corporate behemoths that control the terms of our existence.

Right now, your government is trying to curb the errant behavior of VW. It will probably not curb it enough, and by “curb it enough” I mean “drive it into the bankruptcy and jail its executives.” But you will, in time, end up with a car that is actually fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. In the mean time, you could spend your $500 Visa gift card on a donation to an environmental non-profit, or, better yet, give $450 to the non-profit and buy a bunch of bumper stickers for you and other TDI owners that say, “This car is dumb.”

 

Rambling Man is the Billfold’s advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email ester@thebillfold.com, subject line: Rambling Man.

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