Opinion: Play with an open hand, VW

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

Volkswagen’s top brass has asked for patience as it pursues those responsible for the company’s emissions scandal. But that won’t be enough to guarantee VW’s survival. It needs a visionary plan, says DW’s Henrik Böhme.
Of course, no-one expected Volkswagen to have all the answers at Thursday’s press conference.

It’s been nearly three months since that fateful day in September when news of the diesel emissions scandal broke. Since then, it has slowly become clear just how massive the avalanche is that is sliding toward Europe’s largest auto maker.

There are 11 million cars around the world with cheating software installed to foil laboratory tests measuring nitric oxide emissions. That’s fraud in a truly menacing dimension – from which Volkswagen may never recover.

For that reason, there’s only one way out the quagmire in which the carmaker currently finds itself: a no-holds-barred investigation, humility toward its customers and an absolutely unambiguous promise never to do such a thing ever, ever again.

A first step

In that respect, Volkswagen’s new leadership took a first step at today’s press conference in Wolfsburg.

The company’s new supervisory board chairman, Hans Dieter Pötsch, has promised clarification “without taboos.” The new chief executive, Matthias Müller, said he saw the emissions scandal as a catalyst for change that VW desperately needs. Internal as well as external investigators are poring over gigantic quantities of data. Affected customers are being promised maximum support and, of course, rental cars while theirs are in the shop for new software updates or retrofits.

But is that really enough for VW to win back the trust it lost? Do people’s next car really need to be a Volkswagen? Or an Audi, Porsche, Skoda or Seat for that matter?

That’s where the problems begin.

The current VW chief, Müller, was the head of Porsche until last fall. And the luxury carmaker had its fair share of trickery too. Audi Chairman Rupert Stadler maintained for weeks that his company’s cars were not affected by the cheating, only to do a U-turn and admit that Audi, too, had installed the fraudulent software in some of its models. Hans Dieter Pötsch, now VW’s head supervisor, was the concern’s long-time chief financial officer and a close confidant of the disgraced VW CEO Martin Winterkorn.

And we’re supposed to believe that none of them knew anything about the machinations of their engineers?

It’s bad either way. Either they were in the know and are now lying about it, or they made for some pretty uninformed bosses.

Perhaps only a very limited number of employees were involved. Pötsch certainly didn’t tire from touting this line over and over again at today’s press conference.

Where’s the vision?

If Pötsch and Müller are to be believed, then the VW scandal is attributable to ambiguities in the chain of command, deficencies in reporting and monitoring systems, and an unclear allocation of responsibilities.

My God, one is tempted to ask, what the hell was going on there? Was this some kind of mutiny? Was the top brass lost in its vision of being the world’s No. 1 carmaker? Did Winterkorn and co. lose sight of their vast empire?

What kind of company culture must have been in place at Volkswagen if the new boss has to make clear that it’s not more yes-men that VW needs, but the curious, the pioneers and the maladjusted? VW needs to be conducive to discussion, to closer cooperation, he said. Its employees need to be able to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.

Of course, a corporation the size of Volkswagen can’t simply replace its entire leadership. But a couple of new faces wouldn’t hurt. And, no, tapping a former Daimler manager, Christine Hohman-Dennhardt, to head up the newly created post of board member for integrity and legal affairs won’t cut it.

Plenty of VW executives before them have pledged to change the corporate culture only to leave it intact. Now, it’s time to act.

Seize the moment!

For VW there can only be one way forward: To play with an open hand (like Pötsch and Müller promised to today) and keep its eyes firmly on the future.

The newly decentralized company leadership structure could be a step in the right direction. But neither Pötsch nor Müller dared to say today that Volkswagen wanted to be the leading provider of environmentally-friendly vehicles in the future.

Wouldn’t it be an appropriate vision for Volkswagen – literally, the “people’s car” – to build the people’s e-car?

It has the potential. That much was made clear at today’s press conference. But simply surviving the emissions-cheating scandal can’t be the end goal. VW needs a vision big enough to fuel the company for the next fifty years.

Wouldn’t now be the perfect time to change?

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