This week, the Wall Street Journal and other media sources report that two top-level engineers at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, have been targeted by investigators in connection with the recent scandal involving the installation of devices designed to cheat US emissions tests. Ulrich Hackenburg, who heads up VW’s Audi division, and Wolfgang Hatz, designer of Porsche racing engines, have now been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. The in-house investigation will also focus on VW’s head of development, Heinz-Jakob Neusser and other high-level executives.
Volkswagen has acknowledged that as many as 11 million vehicles were fitted with secret software, known as a “defeat device,” that reduced emissions in certain diesel-powered vehicles under test conditions. Once on the open road, that software disabled emissions controls, allowing the vehicles to emit up to 40 times the levels allowed by EPA regulations. The reason for installing the device was to increase engine performance, which is hampered by emissions controls.
Company executives were under pressure by CEO Martin Winterkorn, who has resigned in the wake of the scandal. Shortly after Winterkorn took the helm in 2007, he set a sales goal of 10 million vehicles a year by 2018. Volkswagen achieved that goal four years ahead of schedule; by 2014, one out of four automobiles sold in Europe came from Volkswagen or one of its divisions. As of the second quarter, VW sales figures surpassed those of Toyota and General Motors.
It wasn’t enough. In order to be Number 1 in the world, Volkswagen needed to make major inroads into the US market. US executives were expected to sell 800,000 a year within the time frame of Winterkorn’s 10-year strategy. There was one problem: US air quality standards are higher than those of Europe, making it more difficult to meet emissions standards. In order to meet the stated sales goal, Volkswagen’s marketing department started focusing on the diesel market. Diesel engines have their advantages: they are far more economical in terms of fuel consumption, and are more durable. However, there is a trade-off; diesel engines are less responsive, and emissions are higher. Volkswagen began touting models powered by a high-performance engine that used “clean diesel” technology.
That technology turned out to be an illusion. An engineer named Wolfgang Bernhard was brought in from outside the company to develop a cleaner-burning diesel engine, licensing a technology from Daimler, known as “BlueTec.” However, many engineers at VW believed it wouldn’t be enough to meet US emissions standards. In 2007, after Winterkorn took over as CEO, Volkswagen backed out of the licensing deal and started focusing on its own “turbocharged direct injection” (TDI) diesel engine. That engine was developed under the supervision of Hackenberg and Hatz, but it ended up being a fraud when it came to emissions. The engines were actually fitted with software to make it appear to meet U.S. emission standards, but only during testing, not during real-world driving. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against Volkswagen as a result of its fraud.
Recently, The Ring of Fire posted an article considering whether or not any of the natural human decision makers at Volkswagen will wind up in prison over the deception that has put millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There is a good chance that Herr Hackenburg and Herr Hatz will be two of them. But even if they don’t wind up in Landsberg or another correctional facility, it’s likely that their brilliant careers in automotive engineering are over.