Dieselgate Claims its Latest Victim: Volkswagen North America CEO Michael Horn Steps Down

Since news of Volkswagen’s intentional cheating in U.S. and European emissions tests broke last September, we’ve seen a revolving door of high-level executive departures at the German automaker.

Until this morning, Michael Horn, President and CEO of Volkswagen North America, was one of the few Volkswagen executives to have survived dieselgate, despite a poor performance under intense scrutiny at the hands of a House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee on Capitol Hill. But as pressure mounts on Volkswagen at both the Federal and state level, it seems Horn isn’t immune to the great dieselgate executive cull after all.

In happier times: Horn accepting the North American Car of the Year Prize

In happier times: Horn accepting the North American Car of the Year Prize

As of three hours ago, Horn is no-longer the boss of Volkswagen North America.

News of Horn’s sudden departure was announced by Volkswagen in a short official press release in which it stated that, “Through mutual agreement with Volkswagen AG, Horn will be leaving to pursue other opportunities effective immediately.”

The true extend of the dieselgate scandal is still not known.

The true extend of the dieselgate scandal is still not known.

Hinrich J. Woebcken, Volkswagen’s recently appointed head of of the North American Region and Chairman of Volkswagen Group of America, will take over from Horn on an interim basis until a suitable replacement has been found. Interestingly, Woebcken is reportedly Volkswagen’s second choice for the role, after a previous choice for the role — a high-ranking executive with Volkswagen brand SEAT — left just days after being promoted to a position at Volkswagen North America.

As you might expect, neither Volkswagen nor Horn are forthcoming as to the reasons behind their parting of ways. Given Volkswagen — and its associated brands Audi and Porsche — are already facing one Federal court case for purposely shipping certain diesel-engined cars with software code designed to allow them to cheat on emissions tests, Horn’s departure is hardly surprising.

Add in the deadline of March 24 given to Volkswagen by Federal District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer to reach an agreement with the Federal government concerning vehicle recalls to fix noncompliant dieselgate cars, and it’s even less surprising. And that’s before you even account for the California Air Resources Board, which has  filed its own notices of violation against Volkswagen AG for noncompliance with its own tough air-quality standards, rejecting a previously submitted recall plan as being insufficient in detail.

In total, Volkswagen is estimated to be facing some $20 billion in fines in the U.S. alone, and Horn’s departure may have been a strategic move by the automaker to set a clean break for the future of the brand. But with 11 million diesel cars believed to be affected by the dieselgate scandal globally, it will take more than a few executive departures to quell Volkswagen’s critics.

We're wondering who will be next to leave the German automaker.

We’re wondering who will be next to leave the German automaker.

One possible solution is to force Volkswagen to build high numbers of zero-emission electric cars as a way to offset the deadly NOx emissions produced by those noncompliant diesel vehicles during their lifetime. But as we explained last month, while that plan has support from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and more than 40 other business and environmental leaders, Volkswagen is reportedly dragging its heels.

Horn first joined Volkswagen back in the early 1990s, and worked his way through the company to become Volkswagen North America’s top executive in 2014. Like others who have left Volkswagen in the light of the diesel scandal — including former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and Audi’s head of technology Dr. Prof. Ulrich Hackenberg — we’re guessing Horn will most likely lay low for the next few months until the scandal of dieselgate has well and truly subsided.

That said, we think Horn will still have a pivotal role in ongoing investigations into the dieselgate scandal, either as a witness or a defendant in any future court cases or legislative hearings on the matter.

What he’s unlikely to be for some time to come, is an automotive executive.


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