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Determined to sell diesels in a market with the world's toughest emissions standards, Volkswagen faced a challenge that even its vaunted engineers found impossible to solve.

So they decided to cheat.

That much was made clear last week, as top VW officials in Germany fessed up in broad terms to the motives behind the mischief that has convulsed the company and scandalized the auto industry. But their two-hour presentation to reporters shed little light on what transpired between that fateful decision in the mid-2000s and the unraveling of the ruse three months ago.

To date, the responsible parties remain unnamed and the sequence of events unclear. VW said nothing about who knew and who should have known what was afoot. While attorneys and prosecutors around the globe probe those issues and others, Volkswagen says it will be several more months before it's ready to tell the public much more about how its illegal test-rigging software made its way from an engineer's brain to the engine control computers of 11 million cars worldwide.


'Chain of mistakes'
Volkswagen AG Chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch told reporters the company still believes a "comparatively small" number of employees were directly responsible for the illicit software, which he said was enabled by process failures and elements within the company that tolerated rule violations.

"The key finding," Poetsch said through an interpreter, "is that we are not talking about a one-off mistake but a whole chain of mistakes that was not interrupted at any point along the timeline."

VW has promised to put "everything on the table" following an investigation that it bills as comprehensive in scope and thorough in detail, one that will spare no guilty party from blame, no matter how high up the food chain.

Some 450 internal and external investigators are at work, combing through the equivalent of 50 million books' worth of data, VW said. They have conducted 87 interviews, with dozens more to come, and have collected 1,500 hard drives, cellphones, memory sticks and other data sources from some 380 employees.

It will take time to comb through that vast pool of data, VW said. In summarizing the progress of VW's own inquiries, Poetsch said nine managers who "may" have been involved in the emissions manipulations have been suspended so far. Other top officials have already resigned, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Audi r&d boss Ulrich Hackenberg, who reportedly was suspended shortly after the emissions violations surfaced in September.

The external probe, led by U.S. law firm Jones Day, will have to meet strict legal tests in assigning blame for the malfeasance and is expected to take several months more to complete. An update is planned for VW's annual meeting next April. That would be about seven months after the deception became public.

That pace indicates that it could be a long time before Volkswagen is able to bring some degree of closure to a scandal that has battered its global reputation and frozen sales of diesel vehicles in the U.S.

By comparison, General Motors was on a faster track with its investigation last year into the long-delayed recall of a defective ignition switch, a matter that had been pingponging through its engineering and legal operations for more than a decade.

GM announced the recall Feb. 13, 2014. Weeks later, it hired Anton Valukas, a former federal prosecutor, to conduct an internal probe of the matter.

The findings and a package of recommended reforms were made public in a 276-page report by early June, along with the firings of more than a dozen engineers and lawyers.

In the meantime, it hired victim-compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to develop and administer a program to pay crash victims. That compensation fund is only now finishing its work.


'Impossible' to engineer
Volkswagen's investigation will have a clear starting point: 2005, when the company made a "strategic decision to launch a large-scale promotion" of diesel vehicles in the U.S. market, according to a VW statement last week. The tip of the spear would be VW's EA 189 2.0-liter diesel engine.

At that time, the U.S. had far more stringent restrictions on nitrogen oxide emissions than Europe. According to VW, engineers working to develop the new EA 189 diesel engine for the U.S. market "initially" found it "impossible" to engineer an emissions system that could comply with the U.S. rules and also achieve VW's own cost and timing targets.

"Looking back, we regrettably have to recognize that the developers involved in the EA 189 project quite simply could not find a way to meet the tougher NOx limits in the United States by permissible means," Poetsch said. "Or at least they could not find a way they felt at the time to be meaningful and that fitted the time frame and the budget they had been given."

Their workaround: a software sleight that created two settings for the engine's emissions controls, one for lab tests that yielded low NOx and another for real-world driving, which produced significantly higher NOx levels.

It worked just as designed. It was also illegal.


Added hardware
The first U.S. vehicles to go on sale with the EA 189 engine containing the illegal emissions software were the 2009 Jetta and Jetta SportWagen.

Taken together, the Jetta TDI line was heralded as a silver bullet -- a compact car with almost hybridlike fuel economy that was still fun to drive and less expensive than a hybrid. It won scores of "green car" honors.

Volkswagen deployed its "clean diesel" technology to the Golf, Beetle and Passat in the years that followed, establishing a niche in the U.S. market. By the time the EPA announced the illegal software in September, diesels accounted for more than 20 percent of VW's 2015 U.S. sales.

The original EA 189 diesel used a "lean NOx trap" exhaust system to reduce NOx tailpipe emissions. Meanwhile, competitors used a urea-based selective catalytic reduction after-treatment system to reduce NOx in their U.S. market diesels. Those systems proved effective at holding NOx to permissible levels but were more expensive than VW's lean NOx trap.

Yet with the second generation of the EA 189, deployed on the 2012 Passat TDI, VW changed course, using an SCR exhaust aftertreatment system. For the third-generation 2.0-liter diesel, all 2015 models got the SCR system. Still, VW's TDI owners were regularly reporting real-world fuel economy far in excess of their already high EPA ratings.

Even as VW added more NOx-control hardware, it continued to use the software that dictated one emission setting for the lab and another for the road. Moreover, the new SCR system wasn't used to its full NOx-reduction potential, "apparently in the mistaken interest of customers," Poetsch said. The software allowed the NOx-reducing urea solution to be injected at different levels on the road than in the lab.

"As a result NOx levels on the test bench were particularly low, but they were significantly higher on the road," Poetsch said. "With hindsight, this all sounds almost a little banal, but that is perhaps why we find the whole thing so painful."

Poetsch said what has been learned thus far about the actions of the suspected participants in the emissions deceit goes against the values of Volkswagen and its 600,000 employees.

"We still do not know that these people involved in this issue from 2005 to the present day were fully aware of the risks they were taking and of the potential damage they could expose the company to," Poetsch said, "but that's something else that we're going to find out."

Nick Bunkley and Christiaan Hetzner contributed to this report.
 

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Chain of mistakes my hearse.


Three at best.


Deciding to do it.
Getting caught.
Failing to resolve the whole thing swiftly.
 
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