Corporations are not people, my friend. If a salesman or someone you know tells you a lie, you ignore them, confront them, and maybe demand an explanation later. Or you simply stop speaking to them altogether. Whatever the circumstances, people may get hurt and feel the effects, but the story normally ends there.
When a corporate spokesperson tells a lie, the impact could be much worse. In the case of car companies, lies and misleading statements have killed people. But big corporations have the money to move on from bad publicity. As long as they mount an aggressive defense and shareholders continue getting their checks, the perpetrators may never face consequences. Quite simply, corporations get away with lying all the time.
Their customers are not so lucky. Since auto manufacturers began producing cars in America in the 1800s, we’ve seen safety shortcuts result in grave injuries and thousands of deaths. We’ve also witnessed flagrant cheating on fuel economy and other false statements about cars consumers expected to perform better. All in all, there have been far too many falsehoods from car companies to the car-buying public. Here are seven of the biggest lies automakers ever told.
1. Hyundai and Kia’s fuel economy fiction
If you overstate your fuel economy claims, consumers end up paying much more for gas than expected over the life of a vehicle. Hyundai and Kia told that very lie to consumers who bought their cars from model years 2011-13. The Korean automaker pumped up the fuel economy ratings by 1-2 mpg across 1.2 million vehicles, the EPA found. As a result, the automaker paid a fine of $100 million in 2014.
In addition, Hyundai (the parent company of Kia) forfeited $200 million in emissions credits, paid $50 million for future compliance, and remained opened to class-action lawsuits that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. All told, the bill will end somewhere close to $1 billion dollars, and that sounds about right.
2. Ford: The Pinto won’t kill you
When a car maker sells you a vehicle, you assume basic safety precautions are in effect, but we have seen flagrant disregard for human life over the years. The Ford Pinto scandal of the 1970s was among the worst. According to investigative reporting by Mother Jones, Ford engineers discovered a fatal flaw in the car’s fuel tank during pre-production testing. However, instead of figuring out a safety fix, the automaker plunged on with the release.
In the following years, at least 900 people died grisly deaths, with many burned alive following rear-end crashes. After an accident involving three teen deaths, Ford executives even faced criminal charges, which was unheard of at the time (as now). But the worst revelation came during one of many civil trials on Pinto crashes: Ford memos showed the company decided to pay off families of victims rather than recall the cars. Call it a lie of omission or what you will, this one was unforgivable.
3. Volkswagen: Diesel engines are clean
Toyota, master of hybrids and the world’s biggest automaker, seemed set for multiple years of domination. In another corner, Volkswagen wanted to maintain its performance edge while still complying with fuel economy standards. So it came up with a diesel system it claimed would compete with the most efficient engines — even with the Prius in an “eco-conscious car showdown.” As American Prospect noted, these “clean diesels” actually fooled enough people that Jetta TDI won 2009’s Green Car of the Year.
It turns out sophisticated engineering was not Volkswagen’s edge. Instead, it was a cheat device. During testing by the International Council on Clean Transportation, these diesels emitted 30-40 times the legal limit of chemicals into the air. Since then, regulators have pummeled the automaker, with fines and lawsuits totaling around $25 billion worldwide. After several years of dealing with Dieselgate, there was still no end in sight as of mid-2017.
4. Toyota: Unintended acceleration=drivers’ fault
For years, Toyota claimed the unintended acceleration occurring in vehicles was due to driver error. Later, the automaker blamed floor mats as the reason for pedals sticking to the floor. All the while, the car corporation knew its flawed accelerator design was the real problem while people crashed to their deaths across the world. The situation came to a head in 2009 following the death of a California state trooper and three passengers in their Lexus.
Afterward, investigators learned Toyota tried to fix the problem without notifying authorities of the safety flaw in so many vehicles. This deception prompted a $1.2 billion fine by the Justice Department and deferred prosecution in case the automaker does not make it right. In addition, Toyota faced over 400 personal injury lawsuits and recalled millions of vehicles in the effort to atone for a glaring lie.
5. GM: No ignition switch problem
As Ford did with its exploding Pinto, so General Motors did with the ignition switch recall. Following an investigation by Congress and, later, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, it became clear GM engineers knew about the faulty ignition system way back in 2004 (possibly earlier). Between that moment and the recall of millions of vehicles, at least 124 people died as a result of injuries sustained in affected vehicles.
Marry Barra, GM’s chief executive, blamed the culture of the previous generation of employees and fired a dozen or so employees while the company paid $900 million in fines. (Another $545 million was set aside for payouts to victims.) As Bharara noted following the settlement, current laws did not allow for corporate officers to face jail time for nondisclosure of safety defects. Let’s hope the laws get improved soon.
6. We invented those windshield wipers
In the 1960s, a Midwestern inventor named Bob Kearns produced the “intermittent” windshield wiper that stops and starts on its own. Eventually, Ford brought Kearns into the fold and had him show off the design to its engineering team. As they ramped up production of the wiper, Ford fired Kearns saying the company was using something else. Soon after, Ford debuted the very same concept on one of its models, and a decades-long legal battle began. (This struggle got the cinematic treatment in 2008’s Flash of Genius.)
We could get into the details, but the short version is Kearns never settled — at one point refusing a $30 million offer from Ford — and won the battle in court in the 1990s. After beating Ford, he systematically went after every other automaker using his wipers until the day he died. Like Ford, they all claimed they perfected it on their own, but juries said they lied.
7. Ford’s deadly transmission lie
Ford continued suffering from its response to the Pinto disaster through the 1970s, but by 198o another scandal emerged. This time, Blue Oval automatic transmissions were the dangerous parts in question. Drivers who did not secure their vehicles firmly in park risked rolling backwards in one of these 23 million models. Needless to say, those drivers faced terrible dangers and over 20 people died as a result.
Yet Ford knew about the problem since the early 1970s, a fact Mother Jones once again uncovered through its investigative reporting. That same investigation revealed the fix would have cost the automaker 3 cents per car. Instead, a decade of lying and driver injury followed. Among the most brazen lies we’ve seen, this coverup by Ford remains one of the worst.
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