Imagination can be a wonderful thing. Einstein famously said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I write mysteries and think my own imagination is pretty darn good. Not compared to some people who toil in the Real World. Take Volkswagen. The news recently broke that they’ve been fooling everybody for years about their emission standards for cars with diesel engines. Everybody includes our very own EPA. To do that, VW admits to installing software (inside the cars) designed to greatly reduce the emissions during testing. The EPA, we’re told in the press, had their doubts. The exhaust on the road seems much worse than what the testing shows–what’s up? Well, we know how VW responded. They lied and said you’re wrong and kept on doing what they were doing.
Why would a successful company think it made sense to do that? Correction. It was people working inside the company who took the illegal actions. How many we don’t know. The motive for the crime seems to be that VW was worried their diesel engines wouldn’t perform as well if they played by the rules. Excuse me? In 1969 we put a man on the moon. In 1974 the Frenchman Philippe Petit strung a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked/danced across it several times–this without a safety net while police yelled at him to get down and a helicopter hovered overhead (IMHO the new movie The Walk is a work of genius.) We’ve got robotic rovers wandering Mars and collecting data. In 2008 Tesla started selling electric cars. I guess some people at VW didn’t want to use their imagination to find a solution. They wanted the short-term fix. (Cheating.) Guess where it got them? Recent estimates (now deemed too low by the new VW CEO) are that it will cost them $7.3 billion. They’ve got to recall and fix all the affected cars and pay lots of fines. Don’t forget the lawsuits. The company admitted the scandal/crime could put them out of business. In which case workers would lose their jobs (workers who had nothing to do with the illegal software idea). This could affect the German economy and VW dealerships in other countries. Then there’s the unknown damage to the environment, in an age where most thinking people are worried about staggering health care costs and Global Warming.
There’s more to Einstein’s quote: “For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” The people at VW who thought up the fraudulent software were imaginative. What I don’t get is this: where did their imaginations stop? At least one of the people involved must have asked themselves what’s the worst-case scenario if we’re caught? (Or not caught?) And still they went ahead with their plan. It kind of reminds me of the 2008 financial crisis, a perfect storm of greedy mortgage lenders, big banks and rating agencies that led to the Great Recession. Yes, imagination can be a terrible thing. Or it can be as wondrous as Thomas Edison perfecting the light bulb.