Facing increasing pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as European regulators, German automaker Volkswagen is stepping up its efforts to find out exactly who is responsible for the current emissions cheating scandal. This week, VW management announced that they will extend amnesty for any workers coming forward with information on the “cheat device” software that was discovered in 11 million VW and Audi vehicles sold in Europe and the U.S. So far, VW has set aside €6.7 billion ($7.24 billion USD) in order to handle vehicle recalls – but with impending fines and civil judgments as well as the cost of repairs, the final figure could reach more than $34 billion (USD).
Last month, an internal investigation started focusing on two top company engineers, who had promised to come up with a design for a “clean diesel” motor with technology that filters greenhouse gases (specifically, nitrous oxide, or NOX) from exhaust fumes without compromising power and fuel economy. When that turned out to be far more easily said than done, the two engineers allegedly designed a software program intended to “fool” emissions tests by activating pollution controls during testing – then disabling those controls when the vehicles were driven under real-world road conditions. The two engineers had been under pressure from Martin Winterkorn, former head of VW, to deliver because of falling sales in the United States. Despite the investigation, however, VW executives claim to have no clear idea of how the deception was created, nor the identity of the individuals who were ultimately responsible.
When the EPA broke the news of the scandal in September, it led to a series of investigations that have since spread to other makes and models, including those with gasoline engines. Auto regulators in Germany and France have expanded their investigation to include vehicles manufactured by BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Volvo, in addition to over 40 others. As a result of the scandal, VW shares have plummeted by more than 45%, and diesel car owners have seen the resale value of their vehicles drop significantly. Now facing fines, criminal probes and a class action lawsuit, VW management is calling on employees who can shed light on the scandal to come forward with information. VW staff members who come forward and are willing to share what they know with internal investigators will not be subject to termination – although they may be reassigned to different positions and departments within the company.
According to a memo issued to VW workers,
Employees covered by collective bargaining agreements who get in touch promptly, but no later than November 30, 2015… may rest assured that the company will waive consequences under labor law such as the termination of employment, and will not make any claim for damages.
In the memo, VW head Herbert Diess also reminded staff that “we depend on the cooperation and knowledge from you, our employees, to carry out a complete resolution of all events connected to the diesel and [carbon-dioxide] issues,” assuring workers that they “have nothing to fear from the company in the way of repercussions on the job such as being fired or held liable for damages.” However, the amnesty applies only to workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. Furthermore, VW warned that whistleblowers who incriminate themselves may still be subject to criminal charges by German authorities. Nonetheless, in the memo, Diess assured workers that management “will make note of the willingness to cooperate, which experience shows could benefit the accused.”