WASHINGTON — Volkswagen's top U.S. executive offered deep apologies yet sought to distance himself Thursday from the emissions scandal enveloping the world's largest automaker. He asserted that he and other top corporate officials had no knowledge of the cheating software installed in 11 million diesel cars.
Though he said he hadn't been briefed on the preliminary findings of the ongoing internal investigation, Volkswagen of America CEO Michael Horn told a congressional subcommittee that a tiny group of software developers in Germany was responsible for the computer code that enabled the cars to trick U.S. government emissions tests. Three lower-level managers have been suspended.
"To my understanding this was not a corporate decision, this was something individuals did," Horn said, adding that he felt personally deceived.
That explanation left members of the House panel investigating the scheme incredulous.
"I agree it's very hard to believe," Horn conceded.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was among the lawmakers who said he could not accept VW's characterization that "this was the work of a couple of rogue engineers." He added, "This didn't happen in one day."
Collins, an engineer, said it appears that VW executives "are complicit in a massive coverup at the highest levels that continues to this day."
For more than two hours, Horn, the 51-year-old German, sat calmly, occasionally sipping from a cup of water as news photographers' camera shutters clicked away. As the elected officials expressed anger, disappointment and skepticism at the company where he has worked for nearly half his life, Horn apologized but provided little new information.
More than a month after the company first confessed the emissions-rigging to U.S. regulators, Horn said it doesn't yet have a detailed plan for fixing the nearly 500,000 "clean diesel" cars sold in the United States with the suspect software since the 2009 model year. Such a solution will likely take up to two years, he said, adding that each car might require between five and 10 hours' work by a mechanic to meet clean air standards.
The cars are safe to drive, the government says, but Horn suggested Volkswagen could compensate some owners, possibly by paying them for the lost value of their vehicles.