In September 2015, Volkswagen admitted that nearly 600,000 cars sold in the US had been fitted with special devices designed to get around emissions tests. Maybe the implications of this admission were wider-ranging than they thought? How did the company cope with the consequences? We offer a quick summary here.
The BBC reported that Volkswagen Group of America CEO Michael Horn was quick to shift the blame. According to the medium, he told a congressional committee shortly after the scandal broke that “a couple of software engineers” were responsible for the devices.
Wikipedia has a different version. Michael Horn ended up confessing that, “we’ve totally screwed up. Our company was dishonest with the EPA, and the California Air Resources Board and with all of you.”
Economy minister of the German state of Lower Saxony Olaf Lies told the BBC that the people “who allowed this to happen, or who made the decision to install this software” had to be held accountable because they acted criminally. He added that the board learned about the problems “shortly before the media did” and was bewildered by why the board hadn’t been informed in a timely manner about the problems, especially considering that they had become known more than a year ago in the United States.
According to a document published as part of a settlement with the US Department of Justice, VW engineers struggled to make a diesel engine which would perform optimally without compromising on US emissions standards. In their desperation, they created a system to switch on emissions controls only during testing. During normal driving, they’d be off.
Wikipedia quotes Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn saying before he resigned (a week after the scandal broke), “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public.” Winterkorn was CEO between 2008 and September 2015. He attributed the deception to “the terrible mistakes of a few people” (Video statement of Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn). Audi research and development head Ulrich Hackenberg, head of brand development Heinz-Jakob Neusser, and Porsche research and development head Wolfgang Hatz were suspended.
In 2016, Volkswagen announced plans to spend millions of dollars rectifying the emissions issues. In early 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to criminal charges and signed the document mentioned above, which was drawn up based on the results of an investigation the carmaker itself commissioned from US lawyers Jones Day.
In April 2017, a US federal judge ordered Volkswagen “to pay a $2.8 billion criminal fine for rigging diesel-powered vehicles to cheat on government emissions tests”. According to the Wall Street Journal, this was an “unprecedented” plea deal that rendered the punishment which VW had agreed to more or less a formality.
In May 2018, Winterkorn was charged with fraud and conspiracy in the United States. And the saga continues.