COMMENT

Data Faking

TOKYO

12 July 2018

The past year has brought a series of bizarre ethical violations centred around the car industry: manipulated emission reports; fabricated steel-quality specs; and finally, exhaust tests that involved pumping fumes into rooms full of crab-eating macaques.

Saint Augustine famously defined evil as the absence of good. In the case of 2017 and 2018’s car scandals, that “good” seems to have been faithful reporting. The lies are shocking, but even more so is the scale of their normalisation.

Recent developments suggest a worrying turn towards the social acceptability of anything “fake”. In January 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to fraud charges brought by the US Justice Department, acknowledging that it had falsified emissions data for more than 11m vehicles. Remarkably, however, its global sales rose 4 per cent last year and the company’s share price is higher than before the trial. The headlines may be damning, but nobody buying Volkswagens seems to care. Even Monkeygate – a ludicrous descent into the pantomime villainy of gassing monkeys while they watched cartoons – is unlikely to make much of a dent in profits.

Meanwhile, Kobe Steel, Japan’s third-largest steel manufacturer, is under investigation for fudging quality data. Accused of supplying weakened aluminium and copper to more than 500 companies, including Boeing, Ford, Toyota, Honda and Mazda, the firm saw its share price take a hit when the news broke, but it has since recovered. Meanwhile, car manufacturers Mitsubishi, Toray, Nissan and Subaru have admitted falsifying data, resulting in millions of vehicles being recalled. Nissan and Subaru suffered drops in 2017 sales but are expected to bounce back this spring.

All of these examples reveal a readiness to withhold or counterfeit data, cut corners or skirt contracts in order to come out as “winners”. This willingness to commit fraud in pursuit of profits is alarming. As argued by philosophers Madeleine Hayenhjelm and Jonathan Wolff: “Even if a particular risk never materializes into harm, it would seem unfair if such risks are systematically imposed on those who do not have a share in the benefits.” It is high time consumers defeated the Augustinian evil flooding the automotive industry with renewed calls for transparency, intelligence disclosure and better-informed ethical decisions.