The scandal has so far cost the German car maker over 18 billion euros in fines and recall costs, as well as seen five former executives charged by the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Speaking before a parliament committee consisting of members from all of Germany’s major political parties, Winterkorn made a long-awaited statement on Volkswagen’s decision to manipulate emission tests of various diesel models.
In an opening declaration, Winterkorn took accountability for the scandal, saying, “As CEO, I bear responsibility for what has happened.”
However, the 69-year-old German denied any direct involvement in the decision-making processes that led to Volkswagen employing specially developed software used to detect when diesel models were running on test rigs and programmed to subsequently alter their engine performance to reduce both CO2 and NOx emissions well below that of real world driving levels.
"Everyone who knows me knows my love for detail, the perfect workmanship, we have invested countless hours in the search for the best solution,” said Winterkorn, who referred to his decision to resign as CEO of Volkswagen on 23 September 2015, as “the hardest of my life."
In another round of questions posed by various German politicians, Winterkorn strenuously rebuffed suggestions he had early knowledge of Volkswagen’s efforts to manipulate emission results and pending legal action by the US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saying, “This was not the case”.
The denial of early knowledge of legal action by the EPA is crucial as it could exonerate Winterkorn on claims he used the dieselgate scandal to manipulate Volkswagen’s share price by not disclosing the facts to relevant authorities or the German parliament.
When asked to confirm exactly when he was made aware of the emission manipulation activities being run by Volkswagen, Winterkorn refused to provide a direct answer, saying details of his knowledge of the matter cannot be disclosed due to a pending investigation by the public prosecutor of Braunschweig in Germany
With the spectre of the Braunschweig public prosecutor investigation hanging over him, Winterkorn also declined to nominate the signals he overlooked, suggesting Volkswagen was running illegal software in its diesel models.
The former Volkswagen chairman did, however, single out Volkswagen’s strategy committee as one weak link in a process that led to diesel emission manipulation to reduce both CO2 and NOx levels. “Our strategy committee should have reported it impossible. That did not happen.”
Clearly well prepared for the two hour parliament hearing, most notably from members of Germany’s Green Party, Winterkorn was very specific on questions relating to his communication with German politicians over the matter, saying he “did not speak to politicians about NOx”, but informed German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “problems in the USA” on 21 September 2015.
Asked how many Volkswagen employees were involved in the emission manipulation fraud, Winterkorn said: “I do not think there were two or three, there were more, but how many, I do not know.”