Volkswagen's first Congressional hearing to discuss its massive diesel emissions cheating scandal is tomorrow morning, and the testimony of VW of America CEO Michael Horn has been published. It's mostly a rehash of what various executives at the company (and at the EPA) have said in recent weeks — Volkswagen is very sorry, it intends to remedy the issue, and affected cars are safe to drive in the meantime — but one passage in particular caught my eye (bolding mine, for emphasis):
In the spring of 2014 when the West Virginia University study was published, I was told that there was a possible emissions non-compliance that could be remedied. I was informed that EPA regulations included various penalties for non-compliance with the emissions standards and that the agencies can conduct engineering tests which could include "defeat device" testing or analysis. I was also informed that the company engineers would work with the agencies to resolve the issue. Later in 2014, I was informed that the technical teams had a specific plan for remedies to bring the vehicles into compliance and that they were engaged with the agencies about the process.
On September 3, 2015, Volkswagen AG disclosed at a meeting with the California Air Resources Board ("CARB") and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") that emissions software in four cylinder diesel vehicles from model years 2009-2015 contained a "defeat device" in the form of hidden software that could recognize whether a vehicle was being operated in a test laboratory or on the road. The software made those emit higher levels of nitrogen oxides when the vehicles were driven in actual road use than during laboratory testing.
In other words, to hear Horn tell it, he knew in 2014 that he was selling non-compliant vehicles, and his engineers "had a specific plan" to fix them. Another full year went by until the scandal broke last month, seemingly without anything actually having been done to cars already on the road or new ones being manufactured.
The use of a "defeat device" to skirt emissions regulations is egregious enough, but on top of that, Horn is going to have to explain how his company went a full year — or more! — of knowing that there was a grave problem with millions of Volkswagen's diesel vehicles and knowing that regulatory agencies were aware, yet didn't do anything about it. I imagine the members of Congress attending the hearing will have the same point of confusion and ask the appropriate questions.
GM's Mary Barra was brought in just as its ignition recall scandal was breaking and handled her Congressional appearances with aplomb — enough so that it got away with a fine considerably smaller than Toyota's "unintended acceleration" disaster, which brought in $1.2 billion. Tomorrow's appearance by Horn could set the stage for whether he's able to survive much longer at a company that has already seen the departure of its CEO, and will likely see other senior executives be shown the door before this is over.