Eric Peters: Silence of the Lambs?

Arrested Volkswagen exec faces a possible life sentence over diesel scandal. Photo / Road & Track

By Eric Peters

You’d think maybe he killed someone.

Oliver Schmidt is facing 169 years in prison.

Earlier this week, the 48-year-old German national was frog-marched before the judge who will preside over his coming criminal trail, shackled at the ankles and waist, wearing an orange, Hannibal Lector-style one-piece jumpsuit.

All that was missing, really, was the face mask.

That – and a victim.

Schmidt is one of several VW executives implicated in the diesel “cheating” scandal. He is the former chief of the now-writhing-on-the-floor, hoping-for-mercy German car company’s Environmental and Engineering Center in Detroit. VW has thrown him – and six other executives and engineers – under the bus, having already agreed to plead guilty to multiple felony counts.

Not one of them identifying a single specific victim.

This is routine. Which doesn’t make it any less bizarre.

169 years in prison is a sentence harsher than the one meted out to Charles Manson (he has been up for parole several times already) and most run-of-the-mill killers, who generally serve about 20 years.

And they actually killed someone.

If Schmidt gets half the 169 years, he will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.

What was his “crime” again?

He stands accused of attempted murder . . . of The Law.

And not even that, really.

A regulation.

An EPA-issued fatwa regarding acceptable levels of exhaust emissions. VW – well, Schmidt and the six other fall guys – traduced the EPA’s regulatory standards by programming or otherwise adjusting the ECU (the computer that controls the engine) of TDI diesel-powered VWs to pass the emissions tests required for certification prior to sale, but revert to more mileage-and-performance-friendly programming that resulted in slightly, imperceptibly, higher-than-allowed emissions once out on the road.

That’s it.

Which, by the way, is industry practice.

The car companies “build to the test,” meaning – they program the computers and set up the engines and transmissions to score the best-possible numbers on the government’s tests.

Even if, out in the real world, they operate differently.

Example: Automatic transmissions – the latest having eight, nine or even ten speeds –  are programmed to upshift to the highest gears (which are all overdrive gears) to squeeze out the maximum-possible mileage (and soon, the least carbon dioxide “emissions” – that’s another rant) by cutting engine revs to the minimum. In some cars, the engine actually cuts itself off to coast at times. But out in the real world, without a Faberge Egg under the accelerator, the engine stays on and the transmission downshifts to keep the car moving at a decent clip – and from struggling to keep up.

Your mileage (and carbon “emissions”) will vary.

So why was VW singled out for a 1600s-style witch hunt? Because it was too blatant about its “cheating.” They admitted it. The execs should have said: Whoops! Our software must’ve had a glitch. We’ll fix that…

Kind of like – very much like – telling a cop you “didn’t realize how fast you were going” when you drove through his radar trap.

Now, there are two interesting aspects to this business. The first being, of course, the lack of any specific flesh-and-blood victim. It is very, very strange that you can put a man in prison for 169 years for affronting a regulation. That the punishment for such is more severe than that routinely meted out for actual crimes – those in which a flesh-and-blood human being has been brutalized, even killed.

This tells us in a very direct, no-nonsense way that the government is a lot less worried about murder and rape and suchlike than it is about people who defy its authority.

The extreme harshness of Schmidt’s prospective sentence and the billions of dollars in economic punishment rained down on VW the company ought to make this crystal clear.

Have the shysters who run the “Federal” Reserve and who cynically, deliberately manipulate the currency to make their fortunes while ruining the fortunes of countless millions ever been criminally prosecuted?

When the economy grenaded back in ’08 and serial financial criminality on Wall Street was found to be directly responsible, was anyone responsible looking down the barrel of 169 years in prison?

George Bush gleefully admitted to having people tortured on his say-so. Today he paints John Wayne Gacy-style watercolors in Texas.

Bear in mind the Supreme Court’s enunciation that law enforcement (the right term; as opposed to peace officers, which are not wanted) has no specific duty to protect the life of any individual citizen, or even his property. The thing the government – and the courts – are protective of is their prerogative.

“The law” must be obeyed.

It’s not much different, really, than it was in Henry VIII’s day, when men like Thomas More lost their heads not for any crime – properly speaking – but for less-than-genuflecting before the absolute authority of the sovereign. It’s no less scary because, in our time, the genuflecting is demanded of us not by a single absolute despot but rather by a beehive of them.

It may be worse – because there’s no focal point. The tyranny of bureaucracy rather than of one man.

This brings up another thing in the case of poor Schmidt, et al.

Who empowered the EPA to legislate?

Congress – the legislative branch of the government – did not write any laws regarding “bins” and “tiers” defining acceptable and not-acceptable levels of exhaust emissions. EPA ayatollahs – self-appointed – did. They are called regulations rather than laws, but it is a distinction without difference.

Like laws, regulations must be obeyed – or else.

Regulations have the same throw weight. As Schmidt, et al, are learning.

But, again: Who empowered the EPA – an “administration” – to legislate? It wasn’t Congress, which hasn’t got the constitutional authority to offload its legislative function onto unelected bureaucrats. No one within the EPA’s secular mosque was elected to their office. The ayatollas within are no more accountable to the voters than the bearded, ululating mullahs of Mecca.

It’s a key point – if this business about “consent of the governed” is anything more than Orwellian doublespeak.

Did you ever vote for “bins” and “tiers”? Did your congressman or senator? If not, what legitimacy do these “bins” and “tiers” have? There is a complete disconnect between the supposed democratic process we’re instructed to reverence and the authoritarian insolence of these unelected, almost all-powerful minions within “administrations” and “agencies” such as the EPA.

Innocent men like Schmidt – who hasn’t even been accused of hurting a specific anyone – face ruin and life in a cell – because bureaucrats have been affronted.

Meanwhile, the real criminals – inside and outside the apparat – pretty much do as they please.

It ought to make people angry.



Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at



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