A Volkswagen engineer pleaded guilty to conspiring to cheat on U.S. emissions tests and agreed to work with federal prosecutors to investigate the German automaker, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday.
James Liang ― a 25-year veteran of the company’s plant in Wolfsburg, Germany ― helped develop the device that allowed the diesel-fueled Jetta sedan to beat emissions tests in 2006. Volkswagen became embroiled in scandal last September when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that nearly 482,000 cars in the United States violated emissions standards set by the Clean Air Act.
Liang’s plea marks the first criminal conviction from series of probes that began last year after Volkswagen admitted to programming roughly 11 million cars worldwide to circumvent emissions tests. Liang, 62, could face up to five years in prison, according to the Financial Times.
The conviction is sure to rock an auto industry that has repeatedly hoodwinked customers into buying faulty or dangerous vehicles ― infractions that haven’t led to anyone spending time in jail.
The day before the Volkswagen scandal erupted last year, General Motors admitted to criminal wrongdoing and agreed to pay a $900 million penalty for mishandling a defective ignition switch. The faulty hardware, which caused the engine to shut off during driving, has been linked to at least 124 deaths.
“People were hurt and people died in our cars,” Mary T. Barra, GM’s chief executive, said at the time.
The company entered a deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to drop the case in three years if GM abides the terms of the deal. But no individual executives faced criminal charges.
In 2014, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine to avoid prosecution for covering up safety risks from parts that caused “unintended acceleration” in cars for about a decade leading up to 2009. The defect led to at least 89 deaths. No individual executives faced criminal charges then either.
Volkswagen’s deception may have caused some deaths, too. The automaker’s cars spewed up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides, which comes from burning diesel. The resultant emissions may have led to at least 60 premature deaths in the U.S. alone, according to a peer-reviewed study published last October in the journal Environmental Research Letters.