Matthias Müller’s “We Didn’t Lie” Claim Puts VW in a Spin

January 12, 2016, 9:54 AM UTC
Volkswagen chief executive Matthias Mueller speaks during a press event on the eve of the official press preview of 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on January 10, 2016. Mueller apologized for cheating diesel car emissions tests on his first official US visit since the scandal broke in September as the embattled German carmaker plans to make an additional $900 million investment in the US to build a new mid-size SUV. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewel Samad — AFP/Getty Images

Has the mask slipped?

Ever since taking the helm at Volkswagen AG (VLKAY), Matthias Müller has tried hard to appear appropriately contrite in front of the media, pledging “maximum transparency” and a thorough clean-up as he tries to win back the trust of drivers and regulators across the world. As reported, he started his first trip to the U.S. since the emissions scandal broke with a public apology.

But in an interview with NPR after that, the 62 year-old appears to have gone drastically off-message, unwittingly showing a side that looks a lot more like the obstructive and evasive picture of VW that U.S. prosecutors have complained about increasingly loudly in recent weeks. Some of his comments suggested that, deep down, the company is still in denial about the scale of deception involved in giving false environmental data to U.S. regulators on multiple models over five years.

Müller initially told NPR that there was no ethical problem at VW and that it hadn’t lied to U.S. regulators about the ‘defeat devices’ installed in its cars to mask the true level of harmful emissions. Instead, “it was a technical problem,” he said.

“We had some targets for our technical engineers, and they solved this problem and reached targets with some software solutions that haven’t been compatible to the American law,” Müller continued. “We didn’t lie. We didn’t understand the question first.”

VW’s communications department appears to have taken fright at the comments, as they asked NPR for a chance to put the record straight immediately. Sure enough, in a second interview, Müller was back on message, saying: “Yeah, the situation is, first of all we fully accept the violation. There is no doubt about it.”

After that, he returned faithfully to the line that he and board chairman Hans-Dieter Pötsch had presented at their press conference in December, in which they blamed a culture of tolerance for wrongdoing among sections of the company which had led to a chain of mistakes that started some 10 years ago.

“We had the wrong reaction when we got information year by year,” from the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board.

Müller is due to meet with officials from the EPA Wednesday to present a technical fix (in the form of a new catalytic convertor) for most of the 600,000 cars in the U.S. that were affected by the scandal. If the EPA refuses to accept it as an acceptable solution, then VW will be under pressure to buy almost all of the vehicles back, analysts say.