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Opinion

Opinion: VW's lackluster clearing-up effort

We've got many small pieces in VW's mosaic of scandal, but nothing concrete yet about who's to blame. The firm has to finally go on the offensive to clear up Dieselgate or face disaster, says DW's Henrik Böhme.

Volkswagen's pollution scandal broke exactly half a year ago. Back then it became known that Europe's largest carmaker had manipulated diesel-engine emissions on a large scale by using special software known as defeat devices to thwart emissions tests in the lab. VW did so for many years in a row.

September 18, 2015, was the day the scandal unfolded as the carmaker celebrated itself at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This very day will go down as one of the blackest moments in VW's almost 79-year-old history. If Volkswagen does not finally begin to step up its own investigations into the scandal and name those responsible, if it doesn't compensate clients generously and if it isn't willing to pay huge sums in out-of-court settlements, that day may also mark the beginning of the company's undoing.

Encouraging employees

Some two weeks ago, CEO Matthias Müller addressed workers in the Wolfsburg plant, saying the firm was slowly leaving behind an initial phase of crisis management and was moving towards a phase of actively shaping the future again. The chief executive did acknowledge that the company would take a long time to overcome Dieselgate and that overall costs arising from the scandal were not yet fully calculable. He also said investigations were being continued "unsparingly."

But that was nothing more than a miserable attempt to put the workforce in a positive mood. Employees are already worrying about their future and are bound to be the first to foot the bill when the crisis finally hits home. It's a workforce that looks set to smart for "the mistakes of a few," as management tries to make us believe.

Lawsuits to cost billions globally

We've got a rough idea now as to what tsunami of lawsuits is building up against VW around the globe. Filing suits against the carmaker have been ordinary buyers of VW cars, dealers, investors and US states.

DW's Henrik Böhme

DW's Henrik Böhme

A regional court in Brunswick, Germany, has to deal with a first lawsuit initiated by large-scale investors claiming compensation to the tune of 3.3 billion euros ($3.73 billion). Other VW-related lawsuits that the court has received involve another 3.7 billion euros in compensation claims.

Earlier this week, VW's chief executive received a letter from US top lawyer Michael Hausfeld. He demanded a meeting within the next two weeks, wanted all facts on the table and compensation worth billions of dollars. VW also has to deal with lawsuits from other parts of the globe, including France and India.

No solution in sight

But all of that pales beside the flood of lawsuits looming in the US. Some of those suits are bundled at a regional court in California, with chief judge Charles Breyer demanding to know by March 24 whether or not the 600,000 affected diesel cars can be repaired or refitted. But VW looks unlikely to meet this deadline as environmental authorities take more time to check the carmaker's proposals for refitting vehicles to bring them in line with current emissions standards.

Time's running out

Not only courts are busy sorting out VW's scandal, but also authorities and parliaments. Volkswagen has to go on the offensive now. Of course, processing 102 terabytes of data (similar to 50 million books) is a daunting task. And because that takes time, the company decided to postpone its annual conference and shareholder meeting until the end of April and the end of June respectively. In the second half of April, VV is scheduled to make its next official statement on what it calls "the Diesel issue."

By then, it will need to put together the various bits of its own investigations into the scandal. For now though, the company seems to be playing for time. That's a risky approach, which may be to the cost of the firm's 600,000 employees.

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