More than 11 million cars worldwide were outfitted with engine software meant to fool testers into thinking that certain diesel vehicles met pollution standards, a tool also known as a defeat device.
WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of owners of Volkswagen diesel cars that skirt emissions standards may have to wait a year or more to get their cars fixed, the head of the automaker’s U.S. unit said at a contentious House hearing Thursday.
Michael Horn, the automaker’s top official in the United States, testified before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee that most of the nearly 500,000 affected cars in the United States will need a “major fix,” including a hardware and software change. That repair, which would be applicable to almost 70 percent of those vehicles, may require up to 10 hours of work per car and might not start until next year, he said.
“This is pretty shocking for people,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., expressing dismay at the scandal and demanding a specific timeline for fixes. “Asking customers for patience is really just not sufficient.”
The “clean diesel” cars dating to the 2009 model year are safe to drive, the government says. Some lawmakers asked Horn why Volkswagen did not replace the vehicles — a costly proposition — and, although he emphasized repairs, he said Volkswagen might consider an option like a buyback.
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“Our plan is not to buy back the inventory,” he said. “Our plan is to fix the cars.”
The company has set aside more than $7 billion to address the scandal, which Horn said may not be enough.
More than 11 million cars worldwide were outfitted with engine software meant to fool testers into thinking that certain diesel vehicles met pollution standards, a tool also known as a defeat device. Although Horn expressed remorse for the deception and said he felt deceived by the scandal, he came under withering criticism from lawmakers for not delivering a concrete deadline for fixing most of the cars, or simply to provide more details about how the scheme was conceived and who was responsible.
In response to questioning by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Horn said that neither Volkswagen’s supervisory board nor its top executives ordered the emissions deception. Instead, he attributed the decision to “a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.”
After an incredulous Barton expressed doubts that top Volkswagen executives in Germany were unaware of the cheating before September, Horn did not argue.
“I agree it is very hard to believe,” he said. “This was not a corporate decision. This was something individuals did.”
His comments echoed recent statements by Volkswagen’s new chief executive, Matthias Mueller, who said that only a few employees at the company had been aware of the cheating.
The hearing was held the same day that German investigators searched Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg headquarters and elsewhere. State prosecutors in Braunschweig said they were looking for documents and data storage that would give them clues as to who might have been responsible for the decision to install the software that led to the emissions cheating.
Acting on complaints filed by several citizens, and officials at Volkswagen, prosecutors have begun a preliminary investigation against employees, who have not been identified, on suspicion of fraud.
Volkswagen has admitted it programmed the cars to sense when emissions were being tested and to switch on equipment to reduce them. But during normal driving conditions, they produced as much as 40 times the acceptable amount of a pollutant, nitrogen oxide, that can contribute to respiratory problems.
Horn deflected demands by the House subcommittee for more information. He repeatedly reminded lawmakers that, as the chief of Volkswagen’s U.S. unit, he could not make promises for Volkswagen headquarters to turn over documents. He noted that there were “quite a number of people above me.”
Volkswagen has been asked to turn over documents to the committee by Tuesday.
Repeatedly, Horn expressed his remorse to lawmakers.
“I did not think that something like this was possible at the Volkswagen Group,” Horn said. “We have broken the trust of our customers, dealerships and employees, as well as the public and regulators.” Volkswagen, he said, took responsibility for its actions and will work with investigators.
Lawmakers were not mollified.
“VW will inevitably pay a steep price for its dirty little secret,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who is chairman of the full committee on Energy and Commerce. “We will get some additional insight today, but the committee’s investigation is just beginning.”
He expressed doubt that this was Volkswagen’s only secret.
Indeed, regulators said they were looking into the possibility that some Volkswagen vehicles contained another defeat device.
Lawmakers also wanted to know what punishment Volkswagen would face. Under the Clean Air Act, Volkswagen faces up to $18 billion in penalties for selling the polluting cars, starting in the 2009 model year.