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Volkswagen's U.S. Chief Appears Before House Panel On Emissions Scandal

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We knew this day would come. From the moment the news broke last month that Volkswagen had rigged nearly half a million vehicles to pass U.S. emissions tests, it was clear that one day, a VW executive would have to testify in front of a congressional panel and try to explain the company's actions. Today, that executive was Volkswagen of America's CEO, Michael Horn. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: It's a scene now familiar to many executives at companies embroiled in scandal - the barrage of cameras and lawmakers' questions. What did he know, and when did he know it? In this case, members of the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee questioned whether Horn knew that VW was cheating on diesel emissions tests a year and a half ago when a university research report first surfaced showing problems. Horn says he did not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HORN: At that point of time, I had no understanding what a defeat device was, and I had no indication whatsoever that a defeat device could've been in our cars.

NOGUCHI: Horn repeatedly insisted he only found out in early September, two weeks before the general public, that his employer deliberately installed the software system to hoodwink regulators. Horn was contrite and unflinching, admitting that fixing and paying for the subterfuge would be complex and massively expensive. He said a common fix might involve installation of urea tanks to clean emissions. Diana DeGette, a Democrat of Colorado, wondered how long that might drag out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANA DEGETTE: Those cars don't have the urea tank right now.

HORN: No. That's why it has to...

DEGETTE: So this would be a major fix, correct?

HORN: Yes, ma'am.

DEGETTE: Now, what is the timeframe VW has set for that fix?

HORN: We are still working on the timeframe, and it's too early to say when this fix, exactly, is going to take place.

NOGUCHI: VW, Horn said, was providing financing and support to the 650 VW dealers in the U.S. It would cost VW dearly, but how much, he couldn't say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HORN: I think the losses are depending, A, on the fines we will get and we will have to pay and then also, B, on how much money it takes to fix those cars and, C, on how much money we will have to pay to compensate the customers for what we did. And this is a whole lot of money, I'm quite sure.

NOGUCHI: Horn repeatedly apologized for not having ready answers to lawmakers' questions. He also distanced himself from decisions made at VW headquarters in Germany. During the course of the hearing, Horn's apologetic statements seemed to soften some lines of questioning. At one point, Florida Democrat Kathy Castor asked for Horn's personal response to the scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY CASTOR: Do you feel like you been personally deceived now after you found out subsequently that the defeat devices...

HORN: Yes, yes.

CASTOR: Explain that.

HORN: Look; I worked 25 years for this company, and you know, beyond my personal objective of dealer profitability, integrity, quality, you know and not cheating was always, for me, a given for this company.

NOGUCHI: Not everyone was letting Horn off the hook. N.Y. Republican Chris Collins said he didn't believe statements from Volkswagen executives in Germany that the cheat was known to a select few. He also accused VW of misleading shareholders by underestimating the cost of the scandal with a $7 billon set aside.

CHRIS COLLINS: Five-hundred-thousand vehicles at $40,000 apiece - if you were to buy those back - and I'd suggest you start doing that tomorrow - that's 20 billion there. I would suggest you are off by an order of magnitude.

NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, Volkswagen's troubles continue. German police raided Volkswagen's offices and executives' homes yesterday in connection with the emissions scandal. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.