- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lawmakers expressed sharp skepticism Thursday as the head of German automaker Volkswagen’s U.S. operations told a congressional panel that deceptive emissions software in millions of VW diesel cars was installed by lower-level engineers without knowledge of top company officials, in the first public testimony on Capitol Hill since the scandal broke last month.

Volkswagen of America CEO Michael Horn’s repeatedly insisted that the so-called “defeat devices” — designed to give intentionally misleading results during testing — were not a corporate decision, but he faced harsh questioning over how the cheating could have gone on for at least five years before being detected by senior management.

Rep. Chris Collins, New York Republican, said it stretched credulity to believe the software was the work of a “couple of rogue software engineers,” especially as the software helped VW-made diesel cars suddenly pass tough U.S. emissions standards.

“It goes way, way higher” than that,” Mr. Collins said at the packed House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee hearing. “Either the entire organization is incompetent or they are complicit at the highest level.”

Mr. Horn, who apologized for the deception at the beginning of the hearing, admitted, “I agree it’s very hard to believe. Personally, I struggle too.”

“I agree it’s very hard to believe,” Mr. Horn said.

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So far just three lower-level managers have been suspended, Mr. Horn said, although there has also been a major shakeup in the corporate boardroom with VW CEO Martin Winterkorn stepping down just days after the company admitted the cheating last month. Some 11 million VW diesel cars worldwide, including an estimated 500,000 in the U.S., are believed to have the illicit software installed.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department are conducting a criminal investigation. And The Associated Press reported that the U.S. subsidiary is also potentially facing billions in fines for violating the Clean Air Act, as well as a raft of state investigations and class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of customers.

On Thursday German officials searched VW facilities in the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg seeking more evidence.

Mr. Horn insisted that no one in the U.S. Volkswagen subsidiary knew of the cheating at first, although by the spring of 2014 “I was told that there was a possible emissions non-compliance that could be remedied.” He also faced questions about what moves were being made to prevent such deception in the future, and what to do about the thousands of VW diesel cars now on the road that are emitting up to 40 times the level of nitrogen oxide allowed under U.S. regulations.

Volkswagen has sent letters to VW owners telling them their cars were still safe to drive and could be used until they received more information about adjustments, but consumers and officials alike are worried about the effect all the extra emissions could have on air pollution levels.

Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat, waved letters he received from angry Vermonters outraged about the cheating.

“How do you sleep at night?” “How do you consider yourself a member of the human race?” were among the questions Vermonters posed in the letters cited by the congressman.

“My answer to myself is that I’d do anything — and I don’t sleep at night — to do everything to help,” Mr. Horn said. Lawmakers did note Mr. Horn had voluntarily agreed to testify and was actively seeking to repair the damages Volkswagen has done.

Mr. Horn was not the only official grilled at the hearing. Chris Grundler, the EPA’s director of transportation and air quality, was questioned about what the agency was doing to ensure cars cannot cheat emission testing.

“Bottom line … is that we’re going to be unpredictable,” Mr. Grundler told the committee, saying EPA would change testing methods and techniques in order to frustrate systems designed to fool standard testing methods.

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