CEO of Volkswagen America, Michael Horn, appeared before Congress on Thursday to testify about how Volkswagen knowingly installed software that skirted emission regulations in 11 million of its cars, almost 500,000 of which are in the US.
Horn calmly apologized for Volkswagen's actions, which he called "deeply troubling," but it did little to protect him from the wrath of the lawmakers on the subcommittee.
"VW has betrayed a nation," said Representative Fred Upton, the chairman of the House committee on Energy and Commerce. "It's time to clean up or get off the road."
The company admitted last month that for the past six years the it has installed special software on VW diesel engines which detects when the vehicle is undergoing an official emissions test. The so-called "defeat devices" were programmed to limit car emissions for the duration of the test, after which the car would return to emitting nitrogen oxide at levels up to 40 times the legal limit.
The German car company, which up until now has had a largely positive reputation, has subsequently found itself at the center of what lawmakers today called a worse scandal than Enron. On September 18, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a federal notice to Volkswagen, which has halted sales of its diesel cars in the US and issued a recall of all affected vehicles. The company's CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has resigned and the company's stock has plummeted.
The subcommittee members warned Horn they were not going to go easy on him from the outset.
"We're going to be very precise with you and VW," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn at the start of the hearing. She, along with her fellow representatives, then spent the next two hours asking him questions including whose decision it was at the company to implement the defeat devices, who designed the software, how far up in the company it went, when Horn first knew about it, how exactly the software operated, and why Volkswagen chose to do it in the first place.
Horn insisted that several rogue software engineers developed the defeat devices on their own and that he personally had no idea that they were being used. "This was not a corporate decision, to the best of my knowledge," said Horn.
But that answer did not please Horn's questioners. If that was true, responded Representative Chris Collins, a Republican from New York, "either your entire organization is incompetent, and I don't believe that for a second, or they are complicit, at the highest levels, in a massive cover up that continues today."
Horn himself later admitted in the hearing that his own claim that the devices were not a top-down decision was "hard to believe."
Apparently German investigators don't believe Horn either. As the hearing was proceeding on Capitol Hill, authorities in Germany were searching Volkswagen's offices in an attempt to find more information on who at the company had been involved in the design and implementation of the software, reported National Public Radio.
Horn said that Volkswagen had fired three employees who were involved in developing the software and that the company is conducting its own internal investigation.
When asked what the company planned to do to compensate for all the Volkswagen vehicles currently sitting on car dealership lots and unable to be legally sold, Horn explained that the dealerships would receive compensation, although he did not say how much. Horn also explained that the company was working to fix the exhaust systems in three separate groups of cars that had the devices and to ensure that this would never happen again.
But Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, said that Horn's statements did not give him much confidence that Volkswagen would actually fix the vehicles.
US Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, was one of the last to take his turn questioning Horn. He was visibly upset as he shared some of the letters he had received from his constituents, one of which said, "VW is the Lance Armstrong of the [auto] industry."
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