German Auto Industry Tries To Calculate Damage Caused By VW Scandal

Sep 28, 2015
Originally published on September 29, 2015 12:51 pm
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So when the biggest automaker in Germany is facing an enormous scandal, there's not much else to talk about at a German auto show. Volkswagen has admitted that it changed software in its diesel vehicles to dodge emissions standards. Press reports in Germany say Volkswagen was warned about using this kind of deception years ago. And now, German prosecutors have said they are investigating the German carmaker. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley who spent part of her weekend at a big auto show in Frankfurt.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The reports that VW officials may have known about and continued putting their emissions test-tricking software on 11 million cars infuriates Ahmad Ay, who owns one of those vehicles.

AHMAD AY: I feel angry of this - all people. I think 80 percent of what - I speak with them. Many, many people in Germany angry too.

BEARDSLEY: Today, Ay is checking out electric cars and says the latest scandal has pushed away any doubts about buying one. The Volkswagen emissions scandal has been devastating to Germany, says PR consultant Hasso Mansfeld, and not only because the car industry employs 1 in 7 workers here.

HASSO MANSFELD: This is the very heart of our German self-identity.

BEARDSLEY: Mansfeld says that's why VW has to respond swiftly to repair the damage.

MANSFELD: Volkswagen has to punish the responsible people who did that. That's a question of our national honor.

BEARDSLEY: German newspaper Bild reported that VW's internal investigation has found a 2007 letter from parts supplier Bush warning the company not to use the software during regular operation. And newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine says a Volkswagen technician raised concerns about illegal practices in connection with emissions levels in 2011. The drip of revelations has created an atmosphere of near-paranoia among Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche employees at the auto show. I have to go through three levels of approval and promise not to ask about the scandal just to talk with one VW salesman about a good thing the company's doing. Sales agent Roman Potts is in a wheelchair. He says VW is one of the few carmakers specializing in vehicles for disabled drivers.

ROMAN POTTS: With the right hand, you can have gas and break. And with the left hand, you have a steering aid. And by pressing the button, the wheelchair is completely loaded into the car.

BEARDSLEY: In 2009, VW introduced the concept of clean diesel in the U.S. And four years ago, when opening its Tennessee plant, former CEO Martin Winterkorn said the company wanted to triple U.S. sales and become the world's number one carmaker. Volkswagen surpassed Toyota in July. Sandro Guerra is showing Smart cars in Frankfurt. He says it's clear Volkswagen had to cheat to pass toughening U.S. emissions standards. He says he hopes his parent company Daimler hasn't done the same thing.

SANDRO GUERRA: Volkswagen has a problem now. I think it's not a German problem. It's worldwide - is the problem. All the Japanese cars have diesel, too. It's going - it's about money.

BEARDSLEY: The German government has given VW until October 7 to come up with a plan to bring its diesel emissions into line with the law. In a statement, Volkswagen said it was deeply shaken and working with the government to find technical solutions. That's good enough for Arsi Saif who says he's still loyal to Fau V, as Volkswagen is called in Germany.

ARSI SAIF: I think the others do it as well and they just don't get caught.

BEARDSLEY: But not everyone is so forgiving. In the U.S., VW could face untold billions in EPA fines and class-action lawsuits. And if evidence shows the company intentionally programmed its Jetta, Passat, and Beetle cars to override emissions control devices, it could also face criminal charges. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Frankfurt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.