Less than three weeks after being appointed head of the troubled maker’s North American operations, Winfried Vahland is leaving the company.
The creation of a new North American umbrella unit, and the appointment of the former head of the Skoda brand was supposed to help bring stability at a time VW’s very existence is being threatened by a global diesel emissions cheating scandal.
The reason for Vahland’s sudden departure was described as the result of “differing views” with top corporate management back in Wolfsburg, Germany. In a statement, VW asserted that his departure was “expressly not related” to the scandal triggered last month by word the maker had created secret software code designed to help it pass tough diesel emissions tests.
Perhaps not, but Vahland, a 25-year Volkswagen veteran, was supposed to help provide a measure of stability and guidance at a time of crisis. And it raises new questions about VW’s long-term strategy at a time when top management has said the company must undergo major changes.
Among other things, new CEO Matthias Mueller – the former head of the Porsche brand – has said that Volkswagen must become a more “decentralized” company. That was seen to mean that the new North American unit would gain more autonomy to produce vehicles specifically tailored to regional needs. That was seen as a major reason why VW sales in the U.S. have been declining in recent years, even as the overall American market was robustly rebounding from recession.
But there also was little doubt that Vahland would have to play a lead role in dealing with the crisis created by Volkswagen’s confirmation it had installed a so-called “defeat device” in 11 million diesel vehicles sold worldwide, including 482,000 in the U.S. The software was designed to reduce emissions when it sensed a vehicle was undergoing testing. Otherwise, those vehicles could produce up to 40 times the mandated levels of smog-causing oxides of nitrogen.
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The appointment of Vahland seemed a bit confusing from word one, however. Days after the diesel scandal broke, Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn was forced out, quickly replaced by the well-respected Mueller. Several other key executives, including the R&D chiefs of the VW and Audi brands, were suspended. And Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen of America, was widely expected to leave, as well.
But Horn wound up keeping his job and, last week, served as the corporate face of VW during a hearing on Capitol Hill. He generated intense skepticism, however, by asserting the software subterfuge was the result of “a couple of software engineers.”
Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, countered that he saw, “a massive cover-up.”
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Horn will remain the top VW executive for North America, at least unless and until a replacement for Vahland can be found.
“In the last 25 years, Professor Vahland made a great contribution to the company,” VW AG CEO Mueller said in a statement. “We respect his decision and thank him for his exceptional performance.”
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