Ever since the scandal known as “Dieselgate” broke a year ago, it’s been the Volkswagen brand that has suffered around the world. VW’s seven other car brands have up until now escaped most of the negative scrutiny.
This is about to change. Investigators in recent days have started focusing on Audi, one of Volkswagen’s luxury subsidiaries. They questioned its chief executive, Rupert Stadler, according to reports that were confirmed Tuesday by VW’s chief executive, Matthias Müller.
The inquiry is part of an ongoing investigation by U.S. law firm Jones Day into the scandal, which affects 11.5 million VW-group cars worldwide. VW last year admitted it had manipulated software in its VW, Audi, Skoda, and Seat car brands, so that the vehicles appeared to conform to pollution limits. The carmaker commissioned Jones Day to uncover the scandal.
The Jones Day interview with Audi’s boss, revealed by the magazine Der Spiegel, comes just days after Audi unexpectedly suspended its head of development, Stefan Knirsch, over alleged links to the emissions scandal.
“The investigators will find out who started cheating first. Once thing is clear: this seems to be a problem that affects the entire sector, and this is quite tragic.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Müller told reporters at the International Motor Show in Hanover that the Audi boss had been questioned, but he declined to give further details. Earlier, German media had reported that experts from U.S. law firm Jones Day, which was tasked by Volkswagen’s supervisory board last year to investigate the scandal, would question Mr. Stadler about when he found out about the use of pollution test defeating software.
A central part of the Jones Day investigation from the beginning has been about determining who knew what and when. In April, Handelsblatt reported that Audi engine developers in Ingolstadt were thinking about how to meet increasingly tight emission limits as far back as 1999. But the plans, which included the use of illegal software, were never implemented at Audi.
Investigators also suspect Bosch, a key supplier of Volkswagen and based in Stuttgart, may have supplied the emissions cheating software that the manufacturer then installed on its now infamous EA189 engines.
Other carmakers, including in other countries, have also been dragged into the scandal.
“The investigators will find out who started cheating first. Once thing is clear: this seems to be a problem that affects the entire sector, and this is quite tragic,” said Stefan Bratzel, head of the Center for Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach, pointing out that the Italian car manufacturer Fiat is also suspected of having installed emissions-cheating software.
The interrogation of Audi’s boss was planned for several hours. It comes after witnesses reportedly alleged that Mr. Stadler may have known some details about the carmaker’s emissions problems as early as 2010. According to an internal presentation made that year, emissions levels were already known to be a problem for Audi, which trailed its two main German competitors, BMW and Mercedes, by at least two years in terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
That presentation ended with a recommendation to notify senior management of the issue. However, since the beginning of the scandal, the beleaguered manufacturer has maintained that the board knew nothing about the software built into the engine of millions of its vehicles. Both Audi and Volkswagen declined to comment on these claims.
Audi’s 53-year-old top executive spent most of his career within the manufacturer and its parent company, Volkswagen. The son of a Bavarian farmer, Mr. Stadler joined Audi as a financial controller at its headquarters in Ingolstadt, in central Bavaria, in 1990. He was quickly promoted within the organization and was the head of the Board of Management’s office of the Volkswagen Group between 1997 and 2002. He was appointed CEO of Audi in 2007.
News of the interrogation of Mr. Stadler came just days after revelations by the Jones Day firm suggesting Mr. Knirsch, the development head, was heavily involved in the cheating scandal. Under questioning by the lawyers, he is also supposed to have implicated other employees, according to insiders.
Mr. Knirsch, an engineer, was appointed to his role in September last year, after his predecessor Ulrich Hackenberg was suspended precisely because of the scandal, which had just come to light. Now the dismissal of Mr. Knirsch is bound to increase the pressure on Audi’s chief executive.
Mr. Stadler had appointed him right at the start of the diesel emissions crisis. Back then he was hoping the move would allow Audi to “start over in this challenging situation.”
The revelation that a manager of Mr. Stadler’s stature may have been involved doesn’t surprise observers. Mr. Bratzel of the Center for Automotive Management said he remains skeptical of Volkswagen’s embattled top management’s claims that it knew nothing of the manipulation.
“It’s a method that surely has been approved by higher management levels, and certainly not devised by a small circle of engineers” without the managers’ knowledge, he said.
Martin Murphy is a lead automotive correspondent for Handelsblatt, based in Düsseldorf. Jean-Michel Hauteville of Handelsblatt Global Edition contributed to this story. To contact the author: email@example.com