VW blames Dieselgate decisions on engineers, not upper management

Where within Volkswagen was the decision made to cheat on emissions tests?  Earlier I’d reported on statements by Volkswagen’s supervisory board suggesting that the top management was not responsible, and that instead pointed fingers at engineers within the company.   Upon Winterkorn’s resignation (the previous CEO), the supervisory board explicitly said “Professor Dr. Winterkorn had no knowledge of the manipulation of emissions data” and a separate statement from the board talked about the “unlawful behavior of engineers and technicians involved in engine development”.

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It should then be no surprise that today the new head of Volkswagen, Matthias Müller, said “according to current information, a few developers interfered in the engine management” and that he didn’t think the Management Board made the decision to use modified software.

Yesterday, Müller spoke to Volkswagen employees at VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg and said the crisis VW is facing is “first and foremost a crisis of confidence” and that

Volkswagen must once again stand for more integrity. Not just on paper. But anytime, anywhere. We will make every effort to make very sure that the rules are respected by everyone. This Group and its brands stand for sustainability, for responsibility, for credibility. At the moment, much of that seems to have been deeply shaken. But: together with you, I am determined to prove that our values remain our guide. And that Volkswagen, that each one of us, deserves the trust of people everywhere.

Let me say that I just cannot agree with Müller’s claim this crisis was caused by a few developers interfering with engine management software.  To make that claim does not, to me, engender confidence in Volkswagen, nor does it make me think Volkswagen is starting to stand for integrity or for responsibility or for credibility.

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Instead this makes me think of top brass protecting themselves, while making mid-level people take the bullet.  (firings have already started)

An NY Times article has further clarification from Müller, giving a different angle to ponder.  Müller asked,  “Do you really think that a chief executive had time for the inner functioning of engine software?”  He went on to note that Winterkorn was so busy he visited Porsche’s research center in Weissach, Germany only once every three years.

Müller Disingenuous

The problem with Müller’s suggestion here is that Winterkorn, like many VW top executives, had an engineering background and was known for taking a deep interest in technological details.

This particular engine, for a refreshed line of 2.0 liter TDI Diesel cars, was critical to Volkswagen’s goal of becoming the largest automaker in the world.  The unlikely combination of peppy performance, extremely high fuel efficiency, and extremely good air pollution emissions, was supposed to make the cars very popular – and indeed, they did become very popular.  A key attribute of this engine was that it had to be ultra clean, and when Volkswagen/Audi rolled out cars containing the engine they touted them as ultra clean wonder-cars.  Hence, isn’t it likely that Winterkorn may have known quite a lot about this engine?

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VW US CEO Horn gives timeline to US Congress

On Aug 8, the US House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee held a hearing on Dieselgate, at which Volkswagen US CEO Michael Horn gave testimony.  He didn’t say much of substance (see the document below) but this timeline is of interest:

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, Volkswagen upper management first learned of the issue not from their own staff, not from the EPA or CARB or other government agency, but from independent investigators.  According to Horn.  For the reasons given below, I find this hard to believe but it is what Michael Horn said.

There had to be multiple teams involved

The NY Times article quotes Peter Wells, a professor at Cardiff Business School in Wales, saying “It seems unlikely that just a few key individuals knew about this.”

Reportedly, as far back as 2007 Bosch warned Volkswagen against cheating on emissions tests, as did internal employees.   Volkswagen began development of the EA 189 engine in 2005, their first using the “common rail” design.   It wasn’t until 2008 that the decision to cheat on emissions tests was made, just before the EA 189 engine went into mass production.

In other words, there were several years during which Volkswagen had been developing this engine, for which a key acceptance was ultra-clean emissions, but the engine cannot have been producing the necessary emissions footprint.  Clearly the management will have received reports showing bad emissions numbers.  Surely that problem will have been a matter of discussion within the management structure.

The same cheat was not used on just one car, but several cars, over a several year period.  It means several product teams had to have been involved with deciding to continue cheating on emissions tests, over a several year period.

Bosch’s components do not detect emissions tests

An Automotive News article goes over statements by Daimler, BMW and Bosch.  The two automakers said their cars were not programmed to detect emissions tests, and do not have the Dieselgate problem.  The key engine components supplied by Bosch, the engine control module, called EDC17, and the basic software for that module, is widely used in all four-cylinder diesel cars sold in North America.  That software is described as not being programmed to detect emissions test conditions, and that therefore VW had to have this software modified to do so.

Bosch may have helped Volkswagen make this change.  We cannot know whether or not Bosch did so because Bosch is keeping a tight lip on its relationship with Volkswagen citing the confidential business agreements between the two companies.  Bosch reportedly warned Volkswagen in 2007 against cheating.

Given that the on-board engine control software is protected by DMCA provisions against tampering with embedded software, it is illegal for an independent researcher to study the software and determine anything about the modifications.

Emissions disparities noted as far back as 2011

In an article in the Financial Times talking about the adoption of new emissions standards for diesel vehicles (they’re going to delay adoption of stricter rules until 2019), they have this to say:

Scientists at the commission were warning as long ago as 2011 that there were massive differences between emissions tests in the laboratory and those on the road. It meant that in practice some vehicles were as much as four times over the permitted NOx limits, with this rising to 14 times for some parts of the tests.

According to the latest commission scientific data, 10 per cent of current diesel models on the market would have to be withdrawn before the end of their natural life cycle because they could not comply with the emissions limit measured under the new tests.

This is referring to research by Transport and Environment showing the vast majority of European cars have the same problem.

VW Supervisory Board statements ring hollow

Müller’s words ring hollow with these points I’ve just covered.  EU regulators knew of the problem for several years, according to the Financial Times.  The decisions cannot have been made by a rogue engineer, but had to have been made by several product teams over a several year period.  Bosch warned Volkswagen against cheating.

Doesn’t this pattern look like a decision had to have been made fairly high up in Volkswagen’s ranks?  Okay, maybe just maybe certain decisions were kept out of the Supervisory Board’s hands.  Maybe instead the responsible product manager(s) agreed on the cheat, then told the upper management it was all taken care of without going into details.  But I’m finding this difficult to believe.


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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.


  1. This is a thoroughly scathing indictment, David.
    VW management’s claims are reminiscent of the WWII Stalag prison guard ‘Sgt Schultz’ from Hogan’s Heroes who repeatedly claims “I know Nothing! Nothing!”

  2. Pingback: Der Spiegel: Dieselgate fraud committed by group of at least 30 managers | The Long Tail Pipe

  3. Pingback: Der Spiegel: Dieselgate fraud committed by at least 30 managers – The Long Tail Pipe

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