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Volkswagen Cheating Scandal More Costly Than BP Gulf Spill?

Volkswagen could be looking at total costs related to faking emissions test results on its diesel cars that exceed the amount it has cost BP to pay fines and claims for the explosion of the company’s Gulf of Mexico Macondo well in 2010 that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. Through the end of the second quarter of this year, BP had booked $54.6 billion in pretax charges related to the disaster.

On Friday, Credit Suisse analysts released a research note suggesting that VW could be on the hook for up to $87 billion in fines and claims from dissatisfied car owners and shareholders. CNN Money cites the Credit Suisse report:

The market does not appear to be discounting negative knock-on effects. The outcome for recall costs and fines is unclear and largely depends on the engine performance post repair.

A few days after the scandal broke, VW said it had set aside $7.3 billion to “cover the necessary service measures and other efforts to win back the trust of our customers.” A VW spokesman called Credit Suisse’s numbers “pure speculation” and “nonsense.”

The bank’s analysts reckon that the biggest chunk of VW’s out-of-pocket costs will come from compensation to the owners of the 11 million diesel vehicles the company sold that have a defeat device installed that enables the car to lower nitrogen oxide emissions when it is being tested and then revert to a more polluting operating level during normal driving.

A software fix that disables the defeat device is also highly likely to change the cars’ performance for the worse. The big selling point for VW’s diesel cars was environmentally clean performance. It’s clear now that VW cheated to make that promise come true, and there is little chance that the car will retain its performance if it meets the emissions standards. After all, if it were that easy every carmaker would be building and selling a “clean” diesel.

ALSO READ: Why Volkswagen and Tesla Now Have Similar Valuations

So, how much is a diesel-powered VW worth? A lot less than their owners thought and that means much lower resale or trade-in values. At a modest $3,000 discount per car, that comes to $33 billion.

Volkswagen could lower that total by offering a big discount if the owner trades in the diesel car for another VW model. The offer would have to be exceptionally sweet though. Fool me once …

By Paul Ausick