Martin Winterkorn, former chief executive of Volkswagen, apparently knew of the emissions cheating device and a possible U.S. probe nearly a-year-and-a-half before the automaker admitted to the Dieselgate scandal last September. In a story Sunday, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag indicated that an unnamed employee, known as “Winterkorn’s fireman,” possibly because he put out fires for the former CEO, told Winterkorn in a letter that U.S. authorities would likely investigate VW’s diesel cars for an emissions test cheating device.
The issue arose, the newspaper said, because there was a question over variances in the levels of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) that the automaker could not explain. In the letter, Winterkorn received information that because of the questions raised regulators would likely probe motor-steering software for an emissions test recognition routine (the so-called defeat switch). Putting a timeline on this, Winterkorn was reportedly given this information in May 2014.
It was not until September 2015 that Volkswagen admitted it had cheated on emissions tests by setting up the controls so they would only come on only during testing. When the tests were complete, the vehicle reverted to normal operation. This mode emphasized performance and mileage where cars belched out levels of NOx that were hugely over U.S. limits, up to 40 times higher, in fact.
Within days of Volkswagen’s admission to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it had cheated on emissions tests, Winterkorn resigned his leadership post with the automaker. He said that he was “doing this [resigning] in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.” Now the automaker is facing criminal probes, consumer lawsuits, a major civil racketeering lawsuit, as well as continuing investigation by regulatory authorities, that could well cost the company billions.
Winterkorn declined comment through his attorney who was not available. Bloomberg had attempted to contact him by phone and email. Eric Felber, a spokesman for VW, declined comment on the Bild report. He did refer to VW’s internal probe, which is scheduled for completion in April.
While neither Winterkorn nor VW was willing to comment, the letter quoted by the newspaper had some prophetic words that concluded “the authorities will investigate VW systems to establish whether Volkswagen has implemented test-recognition software.” Bild said the letter to Winterkorn was uncovered as part of the Jones Day investigation into what has become known as Dieselgate. VW hired the U.S. law firm to conduct a thorough internal investigation of the automaker.
As corroboration the letter exists, two people told Reuters Sunday that they knew of the letter. However, they were not sure Winterkorn had seen it. The letter was reportedly sent from the carmaker’s quality and safety department.
In a separate piece, Bild talked with German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt. He said VW had to win back consumer trust. “It’s important that those responsible be clearly named and made accountable,” Dobrindt emphasized in an interview, although he did not directly refer to Winterkorn.
Reuters, Bloomberg and Automotive News provided input for this story.