As always, our talk time is running out. I’m desperate to pose the killer question that has hung over Müller since he took the VW Group CEO job: why on Warth would you do this? Why would you deliberately take responsibility for the misdeeds of predecessors? Müller was in his early sixties when he accepted this gig from the security of the top job at Porsche; surely it must have crossed his mind to walk away as other blameless, high-profile VW officials had done? Again, the wry chuckle.
“The motivation was to help my employer,” begins the man born in East Germany, who went to school in Ingolstadt and became an Audi apprentice before returning to university and stepping into management. “I have been at VW for 44 years and have taken a lot from the group. When they asked if I could help in a difficult situation, I thought about these things when making my decision. I know the group’s strengths and weaknesses, I told them, and I have an idea how to change it. I am not sure it will work, but I will try.”
Müller’s assistants are glancing more frequently at their watches.
I find I’ve warmed to this man: he is far more candid than previous contact had led me to expect, and far more humble. Last time we met was in Los Angeles, where his job was to launch the Porsche Macan to expected success – a gig almost guaranteed to encourage overconfidence.
Before I leave, I ask Müller to summarise the difficulties of the job. His answer is a surprise: “It wasn’t so hard at first, but it has become tougher over time – because of diesel, the transformation of our business, digitisation, connectivity, autonomous driving, shared mobility and all that stuff. It amounts to a very big challenge, for sure. But it is also fun.”
“We believe they will continue to sell. First, they’re clean. Second, we need them to meet CO2 targets. Third, they suit a lot of customers. So we will go on promoting diesels, although perhaps not for the smallest models. We will invest in a new diesel generation, too, in about 2019 or 2020.”
“My view is the first step will not involve you and me. It will be for taxis and parcel delivery in urban areas, where speeds are low and the driver is the most expensive part. Years later, when systems are developed and the cars can go faster, they will go into the mass market.”
VW’s mid-term prospects:
“Our past success has been based on our product portfolio and this is the answer for the future. We have a huge array of very attractive products and our concepts show the way for the next five years or so. I am convinced we will be successful if we do our homework well.”