"Your first question has to be, 'How extensive is it through the whole industry?' You don't know if it's a unique case or if other people are doing it," said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "The unfortunate part is you're not going to worry about one person. It's extended to the entire industry. If they did it, someone else could do it."
Rosekind's agency doesn't bear responsibility in investigating the emissions cheating. That falls to the Environmental Protection Agency, which served Volkswagen with a Notice of Violation on Friday that alleged the company's diesel vehicle equipped with 2.0-liter engines contained a defeat device that allowed the cars to detect when emissions testing was taking place. In normal driving situations, the cars spewed pollution at as much as 40 times allowable thresholds.
"They tell you one thing, you question it." - Mark Rosekind
But because of the emissions cheating, NHTSA wonders if the German automaker has been cutting corners on safety standards or disingenuous on safety-related discussions. Speaking at an auto-industry event in Novi, MI, on Tuesday, Rosekind indicated no information can now be taken at face value. He used the phrase "Question assumptions" several times in discussing the case.
"Of course, question assumptions means, 'Is there some other safety element there that we're now going to have to investigate?" he said.
As it did in the General Motors ignition-switch probe, the Department of Justice has initiated an investigation of Volkswagen and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced it will hold hearings on the cheating. For NHTSA, criminal cases complicate matters. The agency core function is to regulate safety, not conduct criminal investigations. But in the early going, their investigators may be the first ones to spot wrongdoing.
Rosekind came to NHTSA after a five-year term as a board member at the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal agency charged with investigating transportation accidents. In that time, he said there was one investigation that involved a cover up.
"When you're on a safety investigation, it's a whole different look than a criminal one," he said. "So that's one of the problems here. Our folks found stuff, and it's not their job to look for criminal activity. That's one of the biggest lessons learned, to question assumptions. So to be clear: They tell you one thing, you question it."
He was not the only one dismayed about Volkswagen's conduct. In speaking about both the GM and Volkswagen criminal cases, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said Tuesday that he welcomed a criminal investigation into the German automaker's conduct. "Our auto-safety laws have been the province of industry lobbyists for far too long: We must rebalance the law by putting in place real and meaningful criminal and financial penalties," Blumenthal said, "a true deterrent against automakers concealing information that threatens human life."
Rosekind was making his first public appearance since the Justice Department announced it had reached a $900 million settlement with General Motors in its criminal probe of the company's conduct throughout the ignition-switch crisis, which claimed the lives of 124 motorists and injured hundreds more. Asked if he thought justice was served with the settlement, Rosekind paused, before replying, "I'm going to highlight the NHTSA part, which is that the DOJ validated everything that we found in the NHTSA investigation."