Volkswagen CEO Quits After Massive Lying Scandal

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Update: Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn announced he is stepping down, the AP reported on Wednesday.

"Volkswagen needs a fresh start — also in terms of personnel," Winterkorn said in reference to the scandal surrounding the company's use of deceptive, EPA-cheating software. "I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation."

This article was originally published on September 22, 2015.

There's been a large number of automobile recall stories recently, in which some big automaker pulls thousands of cars over a glitch or safety malfunction. But the massive Volkswagen recall that's unfolded this week is different.

It seems the company is essentially guilty of lying to 11 million car owners who bought diesel-fuel vehicles they thought were environmentally friendly, only to find out that they were, in fact, in huge violation of the standards set out by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This past Friday, the Obama administration ordered VW to recall nearly 500,000 vehicles for violating the Clean Air Act. The half-million cars rounded up include Golfs and Passats, as well as Audi A-3's, which VW produced from 2009 to 2015.

The EPA explained in a news release that Volkswagen employed software designed to present false emissions information during testing — a so-called defeat device, which masked how environmentally harmful the cars are. “Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean-air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” Cynthia Giles, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said.

It wasn't a small difference: By shutting off the emission controls imposed on the vehicles during EPA testing, the illegal software allowed VW models to emit up to 40 times the allowed amount of nitrous oxides, according to the EPA.

The illegal software allowed VW models to emit up to 40 times the allowed amount of nitrous oxides.

The CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, has apologized in an online video (in German with subtitles here), and has said he's investigating the situation — though he has not said he'll resign. The company has set aside $7.2 billion to deal with the recall, although costs could rise.

"Forty times is startling, there's no question about that," J Wayne Miller, Ph.D, an emission and fuels researcher and associate director at University of California Riverside's Center for Environmental Research & Technology (CERT), told Refinery29. "As laymen, you should be very much shocked and dismayed that [emissions] could be that much higher than what you were told."
Miller explained that excitement over diesel-fuel economy — what many people call "gas mileage" — is sparked much in the way that enthusiasm for hybrids such as the Prius was in the late '90s. Prospective car buyers hear that diesel is cheaper and gets more mileage, and they see a win-win, Miller pointed out: They'll save money as well as the environment.

In the grand scheme of things, the environmental impact of this scandal will be minor — diesel engines are a small portion of today's street fleet, and personal cars are just a tiny part of the overall factors driving air pollution and climate change.

But the impact on Volkswagen — a brand many people trusted as being among the more sustainable, environmentally sound automobile options — will surely be bigger.

"I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public," Winterkorn said in a statement. "We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused."

Last April, the EPA placed VW among 21 major car manufacturers that exceeded expectations in complying with greenhouse-gas emission standards in both 2012 and 2013.

We have reached out to the EPA to determine if it will be removing Volkswagen from the list and will update when we hear back.

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