Top-ranking executives at Volkswagen have admitted the carmaker's emissions scandal was the result of a "chain of mistakes" made possible by a company culture that tolerated rule-breaking.
Speaking at the first full press conference since the emissions-cheating scandal broke more than two months ago, VW's board chairman and chief executive pledged to leave no stone unturned in their wide-reaching probe of who and what was responsible for test-cheating devices being installed in 11 million diesel vehicles around the world.
Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch spoke of "not a one-off error, but an unbroken chain of mistakes." CEO Matthias Müller attributed the affair to three things: individual misconduct, flawed processes and a "willingness in some departments to ignore the rules."
The official company line, however, remains that a small number of people are suspected of instigating the cheating and did not involve top management.
"There is no evidence to suggest that supervisory board members or management board members are implicated," Pötsch said.
Loads of data
VW held the press conference to release the preliminary findings of an internal investigation into the emissions scandal. A full report is expected to be made public at a general meeting scheduled for April 21. An external probe being carried out by the US law firm Jones Day will likely run well into next year.
"Everything will be out in the open. Nothing will be swept under the rug," Pötsch said. "Winning back trust is our top priority and our top challenge."
As part of those enquiries, investigators have confiscated some 1,500 smartphones and ordered 2,000 employees not to delete or lose any data. In all, they are mulling through 102 terabytes of data, or the equivalent of 50 million books.
VW has already suspended nine employees it believes may have played some role in the cheating. On Thursday, Pötsch insisted that no one, regardless of his or her rank, would be spared from the probes.
'A huge logistical challenge'
"The last two and a half months have been unprecedented for the VW Group," Pötsch said. "No one here could imagine that our company, where so many people do their best, which is a source of such pride for Wolfsburg, could end up in such a position."
Müller called the procedure of recalling millions of affected diesel vehicles a "huge logistical challenge" that would begin next month. This would be especially difficult in the United States, where the scandal first broke and where Müller said regulations were tighter.
To prevent emissions levels from being manipulated in the future, Volkswagen will employ external evaluators to verify the results of its tests. VW will also begin random on-road tests for certain models to reflect real-world driving conditions and give a more realistic picture of emissions and fuel usage.
The company has estimated the scandal would ultimately cost it around 6.7 billion euros ($7.3 billion), although industry analysts have said that figure could wind up being even higher. Earlier this week, a court in the US state of California decided to consolidate more than 500 individual and class-action consumer lawsuits.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the US' top environmental watchdog which helped expose VW's cheating in the first place, has already warned the auto maker could face penalties of up to $18 billion in the US alone.
The fallout from the scandal isn't expected to leave a significant dent in diesel sales in Germany, but VW did register a slight fall in sales at home in November - although it still outsold the competition.