Dieselgate: German officials 'heard only rumours'
Leading officials from the German Environment Ministry say they all had the feeling something was wrong with the emission figures of diesel vehicles.
But, they never could imagine the scale of Volkswagen's deception, they said on Thursday (20 October) in Berlin, during the first hearing of responsible officials, a ten-hour marathon meeting of the parliamentary committee of inquiry into the emissions scandal.
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No one at the ministry of environment had any idea that millions of Volkswagen diesel cars had software that recognised emissions test, and caused them to appear cleaner than they actually were, five senior officials, testifying in the Bundestag's Paul-Loebe-Haus, said.
The German committee, chaired by MP Herbert Behrens of the far left Die Linke, was set up in July and operates independently from the group of MEPs investigating the same issue in the European Parliament, where on the same day transport minister Alexander Dobrindt denied any responsibility.
The German inquiry committee confronted the witnesses with documents dating from 2007 in which the possibility of cheating software, or defeat devices, were mentioned.
“We knew it was technically possible to disable certain functions in the laboratory with software and that the car recognises when it is on the dyno test”, said test expert Oliver Eberhardt.
"But we had no idea there was fraud involved."
According to Eberhardt such functions are, in most cases, legal, and even necessary for testing.
"That is why it never occurred to us that they would be tampered with," said Eberhardt.
His chief from 2009 to 2013, Hubert Steinkemper, said that despite knowing that test-detection was possible, he had not considered this could be used to cheat.
According to the legal complaint from US attorneys, it was during the tenure of Uwe Lahl, head of the traffic department at the ministry of enviroment, between 2001 and 2009 that the Volkswagen Group subsidiary Audi began with using the software in Europe.
Lahl said he'd heard rumours from colleagues in casual conversations around 2007 or 2008, but could not remember who.
Lahl and his staff didn't have enough evidence to take action, he said. "Now I can tell you exactly what to investigate. At that time we had no idea where to start and what was going on anyway."
At that time, various NGOs, such as the German automobile club ADAC and non-profit environmental and consumer protection association Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), pointed to the increasing gap between the emissions level which was indicated by the car manufacturers and what was actually measured.
"But without hard evidence, we could do nothing. You don't know what you should examine exactly, that could only come from the car industry itself. We did not have that information."
Lahl says he and his former employees lacked the technical knowledge.
"We are good at politics, making laws. Not in the design of tests."
He added: "We did not know how we could convert a presumption into evidence. We could have saved Germany and German industry for a lot of damage. This is very regrettable."
Marion Wichmann-Fiebig works in measuring German air quality. She always had the feeling that something was not right.
"That annoyed me. But I'm a meteorologist and therefore I have no technical knowledge of cars. So I could never suspect what tricks were used."
Steinkemper and his predecessor Lahl said that in their time as chief of the department of traffic of the ministry of environment, they always worked towards better and more strict tests, because they were sure the old methods were no longer effective.
MPs demanded explanations from officials of a damning report in Der Spiegel, when the German magazine reported in September that in 2008 a civil servant of the environment ministry had written in a draft version of a strategy paper on market surveillance that checks on the use of defeat devices were “not provided for”.
The passage was removed before the paper was sent to the transport ministry, Der Spiegel reported.
But Steinkemper dismissed suggestions of the passage being deleted, only "weakened", saying that the text had to change.
"You cannot write something without concrete evidence. It was abstract and it was just seen as a technical possibility," he said, adding even with the knowledge of today, he wouldn't have done something differently.
"We had no evidence. Zero. No one had."
However, Steinkemper admits the adjustment had also had something to do with anticipated pressure from the ministry of transport. "What if we would have written it without any proof? Then we would have come into a very difficult position. That would have been irresponsible."
The committee asked Lahl about the relationships between the ministry of environment and transport.
He said, somewhat startled, "Er, that's very private,"
"You cannot say a word in Brussels without any agreement within the government. If you do, then you have a big problem. Without compromises, you can't achieve anything."
Lobbying: three vs one
Independent from each other; the officials provide a picture of a powerful car lobby which raised, rather than tore down, barriers to green aspirations of the ministry of environment.
Lobbyists would influence officials at the ministries of Transport and Economic Affairs, and Angela Merkel's chancellor's office, in order to push the interests of the car industry.
“It was always three versus one,” says Uwe Lahl, noting that this is simply how politics works.
"That's not illegal. Those ministries must also stand up for the industry. That's their role."
Officials have to be pragmatic.
"Our proposals are often already a compromise before we hand it in. We have to do very good preliminary research before in order to convince them. And then we also have to pretend it's a good proposal."
Lahl took a moment of silence and asked; "How we can even make any progress with keeping the environment in mind? Ladies and gentlemen, that's a good question.”
This article is part of EUobserver's ongoing investigative coverage into the Dieselgate scandal