That should go over well: VW’s head of US operations, a guy with a business background, laid the blame for its diesel emissions problem on a handful of rogue engineers. Thursday Michael Horn told Congress “a couple of software engineers” were likely responsible; the problem as he saw it didn’t come from the corporate suite. Horn also said that Volkswagen has withdrawn its application to certify the 2.0-liter diesel engines for sale in the US for 2016 models. Gasoline cars would still be sold.
Diesels account for about one of five cars sold by VW and sibling Audi in the US, so they’re looking at lost sales of almost 100,000 units in 2016 given that the two were on target to sell 400,000-425,000 cars this calendar year.
Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen of America since January 2014, testified before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. He offered VW’s reasoning and also some personal, speculative thoughts when questioned by legislators.
Horn said he first learned about potential problems with VW diesel emissions in early 2014, shortly after starting his new position of VW of America. Researchers at West Virginia University in spring 2014 reporting finding excessive nitrogen oxides in VW diesel exhaust. “At that time, I had no understanding of what a defeat device was,” Mr. Horn said, referring to software code that put the engine in emissions-compliance mode only when it appeared the car was being emissions-tested. Did he know how the cheat software worked? “Personally, no. I’m not an engineer,” said Horn, who came to VW with a degree in business administration at European University in Antwerp and an MBA at the University of San Francisco. Would the fixes hurt the VW diesels’ performance? “There might be a slight impact on their performance,” he said.
So was it a corporate thing or engineers gone rogue, Horn was asked. He replied, “This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.” Horn himself didn’t say “rogue,” but the thought was there. Later, Rep. Chris Collins of New York said, “I categorically reject everything VW is saying about a couple of ‘rogue engineers.’ It goes way, way higher than that.”
In Horn’s testimony and in details released by VW, there appear to be 482,000 2009-2015 affected VW diesels.
Horn said the repaired cars would not suffer reduced mileage, although performance may be affected. There has been speculation that fuel economy would also go down. If hardware repairs include urea injection, there may be some additional running costs unless VW provides free-for-life AdBlue refills.
VW earlier said recall work could start as soon as January 2016, then clarified to that’s in Europe; a US timetable hasn’t been set.
Meanwhile, there are reports that VW diesel owners fear the performance hit will be more than slight and may sit the recall out. In most states, there’s nothing the government can do. In California, it’s possible to bar owners from re-registering a car where the owner deliberately evades recall notices.