Volkswagen chairman says winning back trust is top priority

Volkswagen (VW) Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch makes a statement during a news conference in Wolfsburg, Germany December 10, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS
Volkswagen (VW) Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch makes a statement during a news conference in Wolfsburg, Germany December 10, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

WOLFSBURG, Germany (REUTERS) - Volkswagen said on Thursday that only a small group of employees were responsible for cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests and there was no indication that board members were involved in the biggest business crisis in the firm's history.

Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch said investigations into the affair were going well, but the scandal was the result of a "chain of errors" and it would take months to say which individuals were to blame. The carmaker announced that it had agreed steps to improve oversight of engine-software development to avoid any future emissions test manipulations.

The company needs to win back trust lost through its cheating of U.S. diesel emissions tests that may affect 11 million vehicles worldwide, Mr Poetsch said.

"Winning back trust is our top priority and our top challenge," he told a news conference at the German company's headquarters in Wolfsburg.

"The last two and a half months have been unprecedented for the VW group," he said, referring to the turmoil at Europe's biggest carmaker since it admitted to cheating the tests on Sept. 18.

"We will be relentless in seeking to establish who was responsible," he said. "Everything is on the table. Nothing will be swept under the carpet."

The company's Chief Executive Officer Matthias Mueller said he's committed to keeping the company's 12 brands, suggesting the carmaker has the financial means to pull itself out of a nearly three-month-long pollution cheating crisis without selling assets.

Mr Mueller, speaking in his first television interview since the scandal broke in late September, said that tips from about 100 whistle-blowers didn't open any new fronts in the scandal.

The CEO, who took over in October, said he hopes to reach a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency within weeks and make his first official visit in January to the U.S., where Volkswagen's emissions cheating first emerged.

"There is no reason whatsoever to get rid of these assets," said Mr Mueller, who oversees brands from Ducati motorcycles to Scania heavy trucks and Bugatti supercars. "We are looking forward to the future of VW. We want to make this company more modern, more open."

Mr Mueller's comments show he's trying to move to the next phase of dealing with the scandal that began with Volkswagen's admission to rigging some 11 million diesel vehicles to pass emissions tests.

He faces the complicated task of wringing savings from a company unaccustomed to austerity, with a powerful workforce defending its privileges and the controlling Porsche-Piech family reluctant to introduce sweeping changes.

Mr Mueller said he'll protect jobs at each of Volkswagen's factories around the world. He left open the option of making adjustments within Volkswagen's sprawling portfolio of 300 model variants. 

The carmaker said Thursday it will have future emissions tests independently evaluated. Volkswagen faces at least 6.7 billion euros in diesel recall costs, not including likely regulatory fines and potential damages from hundreds of lawsuits.

The carmaker is also experiencing a backlash from consumers amid the sluggish progress to recall the vehicles. Sales in the U.S. last month tumbled 25 per cent.