As the VW Group continues to reel from the fallout of the ‘dieselgate’ scandal comes news that one of the most accomplished technical chiefs is to leave the company, prompting further speculation that the Audi division of the German multinational was even more deeply embroiled in the creation of the emissions cheating software. Peter Mertens, the head of technical development is leaving the Group, apparently for health reasons. There is little doubt that the strain of the last couple of years must have been considerable and would have driven even the most robust executive to have some sleepless nights. Mertens is an extremely experienced engineer and innovator and, as head of technical development, it seems unlikely that he knew nothing of Audi’s involvement in masterminding the complex software writing involved in artificially lowering diesel emissions during testing, software which then allowed those emissions to skyrocket to some 40 times the tested levels when out on the road.
For Audi is the technical centre of the Group and has been strongly rumoured to be the ‘laboratory’ where the software was developed.
It seems a short-sighted move to allow Mertens to step down, if that is the case, as the ‘boffins’ at Audi must be the prime candidates to spearhead the Group’s renaissance. As technology moves on in automotive, with VW Group’s competitors developing advanced EVs, hybrids and cleaner petrol and diesel-engined cars at a rapidly accelerating pace, the Group needs engineers like Mertens to take the fight to those competing OEMs.
The automotive landscape is changing in ways that have been partly prompted by the VW Group scandal; BMW and Mercedes-Benz are racing to develop more and more efficient vehicles, in some ways turning aside if not away from their traditional speed, comfort and quality premium vehicle offerings, to bring clean technology to the fore.
Where in the past, the premium carmakers would have relied on those upper-class qualities to ensure the continued harvesting of the higher profit that goes with more expensive vehicles, they are now looking for the ‘sweet spots’ of profit in lower and lower segments.
I am sorry to see Peter Mertens go, he is a shrewd and imaginative engineer who had always talked of innovative solutions in all aspects of vehicles, particularly in powertrain, when I met him while he was head of R&D at Volvo Cars, and then at Audi. I wish him well and hope that he returns to good health. I am not entirely confident that the VW Group can return to the robust position in the global market that one might say it rather took for granted when it thought that it could fool customers and legislators so cynically.
Simon Duval Smith