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Ahead of diesel-scandal fix, Volkswagen’s U.S. CEO departs

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Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in 'Dieselgate' video

Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in 'Dieselgate' video

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As a U.S. deadline looms, and Volkswagen readies a new plan to fix hundreds of thousands of diesel vehicles—and, perhaps, looks to cut a deal with regulators—the automaker’s U.S. arm has announced that its top executive in the U.S. is leaving his post.

“Through mutual agreement with Volkswagen AG, Horn will be leaving to pursue other opportunities effective immediately,” stated the automaker in a corporate press release.

It’s a semantically ambiguous statement, as it leaves the option open for Horn to be reassigned elsewhere within the VW Group. A Volkswagen of America spokesperson wasn’t able to clarify whether Horn was leaving the global automaker or merely Volkswagen of America.

The announcement comes about six months after details of the emissions scandal—in which the automaker allowed a so-called “defeat device” to trick emissions tests, while emitting up to 40 times what the laws allowed at the tailpipe in nitrogen oxides.

Volkswagen still hasn’t revealed its plan for 2.0-liter TDI four-cylinder models, which comprise the largest affected group; a previous plan had been rejected.

2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI

2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI

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So far, the possibility of a deal with federal and California agencies has eluded the automaker, which faces a mind-boggling level of financial hardship (in the form of penalties and consumer and regulatory lawsuits), in addition to the cost of fixing (or buying back) the vehicles themselves.

CEO chair empty on D day?

Hinrich Woebcken will take over as head of the automaker’s North American region on an interim basis. That would leave VW of America without a full-fledged replacement for Horn at the time on March 23, when the automaker is due to reveal its final plan to regulators.

There are plenty of signs of turmoil overseas as well, and this recent turn of rank here in the U.S. may have something to do with that. Earlier this week, Volkswagen had held a meeting with Herbert Diess, the head of the VW brand, and German labor boss Bernd Osterloh about how to find a way through the crisis.

“Mr. Diess addresses many of the right strategic issues but needs to improve communications with staff,” Osterloh criticized, according to Bloomberg.

To complicate matters, Diess stated this past weekend, according to Reuters, that it will take months, not weeks, to reach an agreement with U.S. regulators.

Horn, who has been with Volkswagen since 1990, had been one of the most popular leaders for Volkswagen of America, and had formed a strong line of respect and trust from the dealership body in a relatively short period of time.

He’d also been one of the company's stronger executive advocates for plug-in hybrids in the U.S., at a time when the parent company had been pushing to bring a wider array of diesel models Stateside.

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