WASHINGTON—Volkswagen's U.S. chief said Thursday that he was aware of an emissions problem on diesel VWs in 2014 but did not know until last month about the "defeat device" that makes the cars appear less polluting.
Michael Horn, president and chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America, told a US Congress panel that he had nothing to do with the device and was unaware until early September that for years the cars had software that tricked regulators into believing they were compliant with US emissions rules.
He also said that Volkswagen did not plan to replace the nearly half-million cars in the US equipped with the cheating software. But it would take more than one year to fix most of them because it involves more than a simple software adjustment.
Under tough questioning from the House Energy Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Horn distanced himself from the scandal that has enveloped the world's largest carmaker.
Horn said that although he found out that the emissions of VW diesel cars did not meet US regulations in early 2014, he only understood the existence of the cheating software "a couple days" before September 3, when the company admitted to US regulators that it existed.
After researchers at West Virginia University pointed out the emissions problem, "I was not then told nor did I have any reason to suspect or to believe that our vehicles included such a device," he said.
"At that point of time, I had no understanding what a defeat device was. And I had no indication whatsoever that a defeat device could have been in our cars."
Violation of Public Trust
Horn is the first executive of the German carmaker to appear before Congress to explain the scandal, which threatens Volkswagen with billions of dollars in fines in the United States and possibly criminal charges.
The company was blasted by lawmakers as the House hearing opened.
"Trust helped build Volkswagen because we believed the company put customers first," said committee chair Tim Murphy.
What the company has done "represents a fundamental violation of public trust," he said.
He said the company needs to answer: "What happened, who was involved, why were these actions taken?... Was it done to deliberately deceive government regulators?"
Congressman Peter Welch dubbed the company "the Lance Armstrong of the auto industry," referring to the champion cyclist shamed and banned for doping.
Legislators, saying Volkswagen dealers in the United States were stuck with cars they cannot sell, asked Horn if the company would replace them, or those of consumers saddled with the tainted vehicles.
Horn replied: "No. Our plan is not to buy back the inventory. Our plan is to fix the cars."
He said for those of the most recent model years, the problem requires adjusting the vehicles' software, which can be done by mid-2016.
But for 430,000 of them, it will take more adjustment and time, over one year.
He conceded that the company is facing huge costs, from regulator fines to possible civil and criminal complaints, and to compensating car owners.
"This is a whole lot of money, I'm quite sure," he said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015