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“Misunderstood” Müller Talks up Volkswagen’s Digital Future

Automakers Unveil Their Latest Vehicles Ahead Of Geneva International Motor ShowAutomakers Unveil Their Latest Vehicles Ahead Of Geneva International Motor Show
Müller still didn't want to say when VW will release the findings of Jones Day's investigation into the emissions scandal.Photograph by Jason Alden — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Matthias Müller, the embattled chief executive of Volkswagen AG (VLKAY), reckons he’s been unfairly treated by the media, but his colleagues seem determined to prove him wrong.

Müller hasn’t made too many public appearances since his alarming (and hastily withdrawn) claim in Detroit in January, when he told NPR that “We didn’t lie” to U.S. regulators about the concealed software on its cars that manipulated emissions readings.

The claim, which gave the impression of a deep-seated failure to acknowledge the extent of wrongdoing at Europe’s largest auto group, caused uproar. It also undermined the main purpose of Müller’s visit, which was to win the Environmental Protection Agency’s blessing for its proposed fixes for thousands of cars that are unable to keep to U.S. emissions limits in normal conditions (t has until March 24 to think of an acceptable fix for over 100,000 of the 582,000 cars affected).

Müller was out in front of the cameras again Monday at the Geneva Auto Show again Monday, and admitted that he’d made a mistake, but said there had been a “misunderstanding” and complained that “how it was presented wasn’t fair.”

But at the same event Monday, the company managed to show its mastery of the Freudian slip is as complete as ever. At an event aimed at talking up VW’s ambitions for autonomous and connected cars, the company’s ‘head of digitization’ Johann Jungwirth told a bemused audience that VW’s advantage in shaping the future of mobility lay in the fact that “we have already perfectly mastered the hardware–that is, the construction of cars.”

There was no indication that Jungwirth was speaking ironically.

(VW is facing billions of dollars in penalties in the U.S. for pretending for five years that its cars that met U.S. environmental standards when it knew they didn’t.)

Müller promised that the company would present the findings of its internal investigation into that affair “in the foreseeable future,” but didn’t give any more detail. The company has already postponed publishing its annual results and holding its annual shareholder meeting due to its inability to quantify the financial consequences of the affair.

The odd Freudian slip aside, VW has been trying hard to give the world something else to talk about, with promises of new electro-cars in China, and now, in Geneva, the announcement of heavy new investment in connected and autonomous driving.

Jungwirth told journalists that VW will set up three “Group Future Centers” in Potsdam (just outside Berlin), and two soon-to-be-decided locations in California and China, places where “designers and digitization experts will work hand in hand on the cars of tomorrow.”

 

He added that he expected VW to become, at least in part, a software and services concern by 2025.

Müller, for his part, repeated his message of 20 new electric and hybrid models by the end of the decade, with ranges of over 500 kilometers (300 miles) and recharging times “the length of a coffee break.”

“Our engineers have developed fascinating technologies, from 3-cylinders to 16, from natural gas to efficient diesel (sic). Here too, we can and we will get even better,” Müller said.