Three former Volkswagen managers and a former board member have gone on trial in Germany accused of involvement in the global diesel scam that has cost the company €32 billion to date in fines and compensation.
Six years after US authorities uncovered a scam affecting about nine million VW vehicles, the four face charges of commercial and organised criminal fraud over a nine-year period to September 2015.
Some 133 days have been earmarked for the trial, which is likely to last at least two years, with the accused facing prison sentences of up to 10 years if found guilty.
Former VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn was not in court due to ill health but the 74-year-old will face trial at a later date.
Mr Winterkorn, who denies any wrongdoing, resigned as VW chairman days after the US Environmental Protection Agency accounted its investigation in September 2015.
In opening remarks on Thursday to the court in Braunschweig, near VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters, a state prosecutor said the four accused were aware that diesel cars were equipped with illegal software but kept silent to maximise company profits and their profit-linked bonuses.
Defence lawyers say their clients were either unaware about software manipulation or informed their superiors about it without success.
Whenever the software detected a car was on a test ramp rather than on the road – the wheels were moving but not the steering wheel – it switched on a diesel filtering system to reduce harmful emissions.
Once the test was over, and the car was back on the road, the software disengaged the filter and VW vehicles emitted noxious fumes far beyond legal limits.
Investigators in the US found the software in engines from the VW brand, as well as Škoda, Seat and Audi.
In a separate development, Germany’s top administrative court ruled on Thursday that customers who leased from VW group cars with manipulated engines are not entitled to a repayment of monthly payments.
The case involved a man who first leased, then bought, an Audi. His application for repayment of the leasing payments was dismissed by the court, saying the driver had the full use of the car without any shortcomings during the leasing period.
The ruling confirmed a decision from a Stuttgart court last October that the man was entitled to a refund of the Audi purchase price, but not the leasing payments.