Volkswagen Chief Warns on Existential Threat of Cheating Scandal

Could VW Diesel Dupe Push German Growth Off the Road?
  • Incoming Chairman Poetsch still confident of resolution
  • Merkel sees no lasting effect of VW crisis for Germany

Volkswagen AG’s designated Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch warned managers that the diesel-emissions scandal could pose “an existence-threatening crisis for the company,” as it pleaded for public trust with full-page ads in national newspapers.

The German carmaker faces a Wednesday deadline to present a plan to fix some 2.8 million vehicles in its home market. Poetsch told managers last week he was certain the Wolfsburg, Germany-based carmaker will overcome the crisis with enough effort, according to Welt am Sonntag newspaper. 

Hans Dieter Poetsch
Hans Dieter Poetsch
Photographer: Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images

Volkswagen and German industry have been rocked by charges, first made by U.S. regulators on Sept. 18, that the carmaker had used software to hoodwink regulators about the true emissions of its diesel cars for years. As owners of 11 million affected cars across the globe, regulators and investors await answers, the crisis has wiped out almost 30 billion euros ($34 billion) of the company’s value.

As Volkswagen’s new chief executive officer, Matthias Mueller, vows to repair the damage, the carmaker undertook a media campaign that included a full-page mea culpa advertisement published in major German newspapers to mark the 25th anniversary of the country’s reunification.

Instead of lauding a quarter century of German unity, the company used fine print on a broad white field to say it would dispense with celebratory expressions, instead assuring the public that it will resolve the crisis.

“We just want to say one thing: We will do everything to win back your trust,” the carmaker said in the ad Sunday.

Merkel Statement

After mostly remaining silent on the cheating scandal, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday called the disclosure by Germany’s largest carmaker “a dramatic event” and said Volkswagen must clarify the affair swiftly. She ruled out a longer-term impact on the country’s industry.

“I believe that the reputation of German industry, the trust in Germany as a business location, hasn’t been so shaken that we won’t continue to be seen as a good business location,” Merkel told Deutschlandfunk radio in an interview.

An internal investigation has already yielded several engineers who admitted to installing the fraudulent software in 2008 for EA 189 diesel-motor models, Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported Sunday. The decision for the regulatory work-around came as project engineers determined there was no way to meet both emissions standards and cost controls, a jam that threatened to bring the marquee project to a halt, Bild said.

The result was a so-called defeat device that disengaged emissions controls when an auto wasn’t being tested, breaching emissions rules and prompting a raft of government investigations and lawsuits since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the violations last month.

More Executives

Volkswagen has also found more executives are involved in the scandal than previously acknowledged, a group bigger than just a few developers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported, citing officials close to the supervisory board.

Volkswagen declined to comment on the German newspaper reports, company spokesman Eric Felber said by phone.

Martin Winterkorn quit as CEO on Sept. 23. Audi development chief Ulrich Hackenberg, a Winterkorn confidante who was responsible for VW brand development in 2007 to 2013, and Wolfgang Hatz, who ran the group’s powertrain development from 2007 and 2011, are among others who will leave, according to people familiar with the matter.

The manipulated software may have been put into parts supplied by Hanover, Germany-based Continental AG for 1.6-liter engines, Bild am Sonntag reported. Upgrading models with Continental parts would entail replacement parts, not just a software upgrade, Bild said.

Another engine-parts supplier, Robert Bosch GmbH, warned VW in 2007 that its planned use of the software was illegal, Bild reported on Sept. 27.

“We have no indication of any misuse of our technology,” Continental spokesman Felix Gress said by phone, adding that it wasn’t outfitted to gauge emissions.

In contrast with Merkel, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat, said the scandal is a “grave blow for the German economy as a whole.”

“It’s hard to believe the level of negligence and possibly even criminal activity was present here,” Schulz told the Funke group of German newspapers in an joint interview. “Still, I think Volkswagen is a strong company that has every chance to overcome the crisis.”

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