German transport minister Dobrindt to be grilled over VW emissions

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt is due to appear before a parliamentary committee on VW emissions cheating. Most notable though, is one figure - former VW chairman Ferdinand Piech - who won't be attending.

Dobrindt was set to answer questions from the parliamentary committee on Thursday, facing questions over how much the government knew about the VW emissions affair.

EU law means that automakers earn a green light from their own national governments to sell cars across the trading block - and beyond. However, critics claim that regulators are able to turn a blind eye to issues that might prevent manufacturers selling their vehicles abroad.

Ahead of the Bundestag hearing, it was expected that Dobrindt would be asked about the degree of government scrutiny over emissions testing.

Bundesverkehrsminister Alexander Dobrindt bei VW

Dobrindt has said other countries need to clean up their acts on emissions testing

The "Dieselgate" scandal hit the headlines when Volkswagen admitted in September 2015 that it installed test-cheating software devices in 11 million diesel-engine cars. The devices reduced emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides when they detected that vehicles were undergoing tests.

Nature and Environment | 08.12.2016

The affair damaged the VW brand and saw it buffeted by a series of lawsuits, particularly in the US.

Since the scandal Dobrindt has himself called on counterparts in other EU countries to ensure the emissions testing regime is rigorous enough. He claimed a range of other carmakers' vehicles exhibited irregularities.

At the hearing on Thursday, expert Alois Krasenbrink said that emissions testing as long as a decade ago by the EU Commission showed a difference between testing and real road data in several carmakers' products. Brands that showed such differences included Fiat, Renault and BMW.

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The disaster unfolds

About two weeks after Volkswagen admitted behind closed doors to US environmental regulators that it had installed cheating software in some 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide, the Environmental Protection Agency shared that information with the public. It was Sept. 18, 2015. The ensuing crisis would eventually take a few unexpected turns.

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The boss must go, long live the boss

Volkswagen's then-CEO Martin Winterkorn (above) had little choice but to step down several days after news of the scandal broke. In September, he tendered his resignation, but retained his other posts within the Volkswagen Group. Winterkorn's successor was Matthias Müller. Until taking the reins at VW, Müller had been the chairman at Porsche, a VW subsidiary.

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Raiding headquarters

Regulators in the US weren't the only ones investigating VW. Authorities in Lower Saxony, the German state in which VW is based, were also scrutinizing the company. On October 8, state prosecutors raided VW's headquarters along with several other corporate locations.

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Hell breaks loose

On January 4, 2016, the US government filed a lawsuit against VW in Detroit, accusing the German automaker of fraud and violations of American climate protection regulations. The lawsuit sought up to $46 billion for violations of the Clean Air Act.

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Quit or forced out?

In March, the head of VW in the US, Michael Horn, resigned. In the initial days and weeks after the scandal broke, he was the one US authorities turned to for information. He issued an official apology on behalf of the automaker, asking for the public's forgiveness.

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Settlement

On October 25, a US judge approved a final settlement that would have VW pay $15.3 billion. In addition, affected cars would be retrofitted with better, non-deceptive hardware and software, or else VW would buy them back completely from customers.

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Imitators

When dieselgate first emerged in 2015, analysts said it was likely other car makers were also cheating tests. But It wasn't until 2017 that other companies were targeted in probes. In July, German authorities launched investigations into luxury car makers Porsche and Daimler for allegedly cheating emissions tests. Others, such as Audi and Chrysler, have also been hit by similar allegations.

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Public still supportive

Despite dieselgate, VW has managed to keep the emissions scandal from utterly tarnishing its image. According to several polls, between 55 to 67 percent of Germans continue to trust the automaker. In the US, polls show that roughly 50 percent still believe the German company produces worthwhile vehicles.

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Fuming over monkeys

In late January, however, VW suffered another heavy blow over reports that the company experimented on monkeys and made the animals inhale diesel fumes. To make matters worse, a separate experiment that had humans inhale relatively harmless nitrogen dioxide was revealed at the same time. Some media wrongly interpreted this to mean humans were also inhaling toxic fumes.

Top directors informed?

Also up for questioning is Lower Saxony state premier Stephan Weil, who is a supervisory board member at VW. The state is the carmaker's second largest shareholder.

Former VW chairman Piech has been cited as alleging that Weil knew about potential problems over exhaust gas testing six months before the VW emissions scandal broke.

Quoting court documents, the mass circulation newspaper Bild am Sonntag and news magazine Spiegel reported that Piech told prosecutors he had informed top directors at VW, including Weil, about the unfolding scandal as early as February 2015 - months before it became public.

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Piech, however, has refused to publicly confirm the allegations and said he would not attend the parliamentary committee, despite being requested to do so.

"If he had nothing to hide, he ought to have come," committee chairman Herbert Behrens told  the Funke Mediengruppe group of newspapers after Piech refused to show up.

According to the Bild am Sonntag and Spiegel reports, Piech also raised the issue with former VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn. Winterkorn was questioned by the parliamentary committee last month, when he denied early knowledge of the affair.

rc/rt (dpa, Reuters)