Volkswagen U.S. Chief Knew of Potential Emissions Problems in 2014

The head of Volkswagen’s American business knew about a potential emissions problem with the company’s vehicles in spring 2014, earlier than previously acknowledged by top management in the United States.

Michael Horn, the chief executive of the Volkswagen Group of America, said he was informed at the time of “a possible emissions noncompliance,” but was told that the company’s engineers would work with the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve the issue, according to testimony prepared for a congressional hearing set for Thursday. Later that year, he said, he was told that Volkswagen’s technical teams had a specific plan for bringing the vehicles into compliance.

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It wasn’t until September 2015 that Volkswagen disclosed at a meeting with regulators that software in certain diesel vehicles contained a so-called defeat device, which effectively lowered emissions for testing purposes. The device could recognize whether a vehicle was being operated in a test laboratory or on the road and emit different levels of pollutants accordingly.

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Volkswagen could have saved fuel or improved performance by allowing more pollutants to pass through its cars’ exhaust systems, researchers said.

The company has not provided a fix. Volkswagen faced a German government deadline of Wednesday night to submit a plan to correct the vehicles.

At the hearing, Mr. Horn is expected to apologize for the company’s trickery and to describe the steps it will take to investigate the episode, including finding remedies for the affected vehicles and adopting measures to prevent this from happening again.

Mr. Horn, in his prepared testimony, said Volkswagen was “working tirelessly to develop remedies for each of the affected groups of vehicles.” He explained that there were three groups of vehicles involved, each containing one of the three generations of the two-liter diesel engine, and that each would require a different solution. Volkswagen has indicated that it will fix its 11 million faulty diesel vehicles by the end of 2016.

As Volkswagen works with American officials to address the issues, Mr. Horn indicated that certain features on future models still needed regulatory approval. With that process incomplete, he said the company had withdrawn the application for certification of the 2016 model vehicles.

He also said that the company was examining its internal processes to make sure this kind of deception would not happen again. “Volkswagen knows that we will be judged not by words, but by our actions over the coming weeks and months,” said Mr. Horn.

A spokeswoman for Volkswagen noted that Mr. Horn in 2014 “did not know, nor was he informed, that Volkswagen vehicles included the defeat device software.” That information, said the spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan, was “only revealed to Mr. Horn and to U.S. government agencies over the past several weeks.”

As the company tries to restore its battered reputation, Volkswagen is trying to limit the culpability.

Volkswagen’s new chief executive, Matthias Müller, said in an interview published on Wednesday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that only a few employees were involved in the deception. Mr. Müller added that he did not believe that his predecessor, Martin Winterkorn, knew of the cheating.

“Do you really think that a chief executive had time for the inner functioning of engine software?” Mr. Müller told the newspaper. He said Mr. Winterkorn was so busy that he visited Porsche’s famed research and development center in Weissach, Germany, only once every three years.

Mr. Müller did say that four people — one more than previously disclosed — had been suspended over the scandal.

While Mr. Müller did not name any of the four suspended people, three names are known: Ulrich Hackenberg, Heinz-Jakob Neusser and Wolfgang Hatz. All three held top positions at Volkswagen units and have been involved in engine development.

The fourth person, Mr. Müller said, is below the level of top management. Some other employees who may have been involved have already retired, he said.

The notion that the issues stemmed from a small group of managers was met with skepticism outside Volkswagen and raised questions on whether the company was committed to changing a corporate culture that might have led to the scandal. And Volkswagen’s supervisory board, which oversees Mr. Müller, appointed an insider as chairman on Wednesday.

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