VW chief voices doubts to US Congress over board’s claims in emissions scandal

Volkswagen’s US boss on Thursday said he felt personally deceived by the emissions rigging scandal that has engulfed the carmaker and admitted he found it “hard to believe” that just two rogue engineers were at the root of the furore, reports The Guardian.

Michael Horn told a congressional hearing in Washington that it was wrong for companies to put profits before people. His appearance came just hours after police raided Volkswagen’s headquarters in Germany on Thursday as part of their investigation into the scandal.

At times Horn struggled to maintain his composure and told lawmakers he was unable to sleep at night following revelations that 11m diesel VW vehicles worldwide have been fitted with a defeat device designed to cheat emissions tests. “I have worked for 25 years for this company,” said the German-born executive. “Integrity, quality and not cheating was always for me a given for this company,” he said. “I don’t sleep at night.”

At first Horn kept to the VW line that two rogue software engineers were responsible for the deception, but under tough questioning by members of the House committee on energy and commerce he admitted that he too found it difficult to believe. Chris Collins, a representative from New York, told Horn that he “categorically” rejected the idea that lowly software engineers were solely responsible and that VW was either incompetent or involved in a “massive cover-up”.

“I agree it’s very hard to believe,” said Horn. “Personally I struggle as well.”

The company faces fines of up to $18bn (£15.9bn) from US regulators and a rash of lawsuits from angry customers as well as investigations from regulators across the world.

Horn said the scandal would cost VW “a whole lot of money”. The company has set aside £6.5bn ($7.3bn). “Maybe this is enough. Maybe this is not enough. I don’t know,” Horn said.

Horn said that he personally was unaware of the emissions rigging software despite hearing about issues with emissions compliance as early as spring 2014. “Let me be very clear about this: while I was told about the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] process, I was not then told, nor did I have any reason to suspect, that our vehicles included such a device,” Horn said.

In the spring of 2014 a West Virginia University research team found higher nitrogen oxide emissions in two Volkswagen cars. “At that time, I had no understanding of what a defeat device was,” Horn said.

A Guardian analysis suggests that rigging the emissions tests means VW may be responsible for adding nearly 1m tonnes of air pollution every year. The affected cars were pumping out 40 times the amounts of pollution allowed under the US’s clean air act. Under the terms of act the Justice Department could impose fines of as much as $37,500 (£24,545) for each recalled vehicle, a possible total penalty of $18bn (£15.9bn) before any other fines and close to the record $20bn (£17.7bn) that BP was fined for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“We’re here because Volkswagen lied,” said New Jersey representative Frank Pallone. Following on from hearings into scandals at GM, Toyota and air bag manufacturer Takata, Pallone said the latest hearing made him wonder “how much we should trust the auto industry in general”.

“This seems to be a pervasive culture of deception in the auto industry and it needs to stop now,” he said.

Horn reiterated that all the affected cars were safe to drive and said the automaker would fix the US diesel cars involved in the scandal.

Underlining the uphill task to winning back confidence, Congressman Peter Welch said: “VW is the Lance Armstrong of the auto industry” – a reference to the US cyclist who was stripped of seven consecutive Tour de France titles after he was caught doping.

Meanwhile, raids at Volkwagen’s Wolfsburg base in Germanywere aimed at finding documents that could identify VW staff involved in manipulating diesel emissions tests, said prosecutors in Lower Saxony.

The German prosecutors said: “Today, in connection with the so-called emissions scandal, raids were carried out at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg and other locations. The raids aimed to secure documents and data carriers that, in view of possible offences, can provide information about the exact conduct of company employees and their identities in the manipulation of exhaust emissions of diesel vehicles.”

Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor of Germany and also the economy minister, also visited Wolfsburg on Thursday to address staff. “I think it is important to send the message that, in the end, the employees must not pay the price for criminal behaviour by managers,” he told workers.