On Monday, Volkswagen CEO Matthias Müller told NPR that the automaker didn’t lie in 2014 when regulators asked the automaker why its cars were polluting way more than advertised:
“We didn’t lie. We didn’t understand the question first. And then we worked since 2014 to solve the problem.”
Immediately realizing that wasn’t the thing to say, Müller asked NPR for a do-over Monday, which he got:
“Yeah, the situation is, first of all we fully accept the violation. There is no doubt about it. Second, we have to apologize on behalf of Volkswagen for that situation we have created in front of customers, in front of dealers and, of course, to the authorities. …”
Which sounds much more conciliatory, but doesn’t necessarily contradict his earlier statement. So, yeah, this isn’t good.
So what are we supposed to believe?
First, we know that Volkswagen has a tendency to say some weird stuff when approached with the cold-stone fact that their cars aren’t exactly as advertised. From Nov. 2:
“(Volkswagen) wishes to emphasize that no software has been installed in the 3-liter V6 diesel power units to alter emissions characteristics in a forbidden manner.”
And now, Müller’s NPR statement that he was a little confused because of “everybody shouting” is another page from a communications strategy I can’t comprehend at the moment.
(Müller’s comments are doubly strange considering he’s not alone in a sea of complete savages — Müller’s actions and interviews should be very carefully choreographed.)
All of which could lead us to a few conclusions about Volkswagen at this point:
• First, that the automaker is so segmented and broken that one of the automaker’s hands has no idea what the other is doing.
• Or second, that Müller is such a terrible traveler that he can’t think straight days after flying across the pond, in which case, is that the best face-man for the world’s second largest automaker?
• Or third, that somewhere, someone in Volkswagen has cultivated a narrative that hundreds of engineers and lawyers couldn’t understand what laws are, which is frankly very hard to believe.
• Or last, that something was lost in the translation, which again, is he the best person to prop up as CEO?
Personally, after listening to the conversation several times, I understand how it could be all four at the same time.
Müller’s apologies all sound very similar: they’re relatively uniform and sound carefully crafted. There’s no doubt that he’s been groomed in the new world of corporate apologies.
Furthermore, when he starts talking about the “technical problem,” he sounds like he’s going off script, and he could be referring to what the automaker is allowed to pass through European regulators, and what U.S. officials won’t take, which is a huge difference. We all know the European test isn’t based in reality, whatsoever. But that wasn’t a smart comment to make right now, either way.
Even more, from a legal perspective, Volkswagen may be crafting a message about how emissions laws in the U.S. are a moving target. Remember how the PT Cruiser technically qualified as light van? Exactly. Ignorance of the law excuses no one, but there’s a lot of room between getting spanked for what you’ve admitted to and what you’ve lied about, and what you can still get away with. It sounds like Volkswagen’s team is considering all three possibilities.
It’s also easy to imagine how an automaker that has tens of thousands of employees may not have a full grasp of how it implemented millions of emissions-cheating devices in its cars.
All of which means that an uphill battle for Volkswagen’s PR department is infinitely harder because even the automaker isn’t sure what the hell is going on anymore.
They may want another do-over.