epa05096544 Matthias Mueller, CEO of Volkswagen AG, speaks to members of the media in Detroit, Michigan, USA, 10 January 2016, on the eve of the first press day of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The NAIAS opens to the press and distributors on 11 January, and to the public from 16 to 24 January. EPA/HEIKO LOSSIE

Detroit, Michigan - Volkswagen chief executive Matthias Mueller has apologised for cheating on emissions tests on his first official US visit since the #Dieselgate scandal broke in September 2015.

Speaking at a media reception on the eve of the Detroit motor show, Mueller said: “We know that we have let down customers, authorities, regulators and the general public here in America.

“We are - I am - truly sorry for that and I would like to apologise once again for what went wrong at Volkswagen,” he added, stressing that “our most important task in 2016 is to win back trust”.

“It's not only our cars we have to fix. We have to repair our credibility, too.”

Volkswagen admitted it had installed software in about 11 million VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda diesel cars worldwide that helped them evade emissions standards - but only after US regulators discovered the problem.

The so-called defeat devices turn on pollution controls when the car is undergoing testing, and off when it is back on the road, allowing it to spew out harmful levels of nitrogen oxide.

The affair severely damaged Volkswagen's reputation and spawned a host of investigations in several countries.

VW likely to buy back cars in the US

Speaking to journalists after his speech, Mueller insisted that “we are not a criminal brand or group”. Volkswagen had made “huge” technical mistakes, but had “no intention” to deceive the US public or regulators, he said.

Civil penalties in the United States could run well above $20 billion (R325 billion) . Volkswagen also faces a costly recall, and at least 650 class-action lawsuits from disgruntled US customers.

When asked about the fines, Mueller quipped that people “are overbidding each other every day” in their estimates.

“I am eager to see when the first one is writing about 100 billion,” he told reporters, adding that “we have nothing to say about that”.

Mueller confirmed that he would meet Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy on Wednesday in Washington.

“We will offer some solutions and we will see how the reaction will be,” he said. “We have appropriate technical solutions. We will offer the solutions in very short time.”

Mueller did not want to get into the details of the package, but when asked about a possible buyback of more than 100 000 affected vehicles in the United States, he said: “That is part of the solution we want to discuss with Mrs McCarthy.”

German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported on Sunday that VW engineers had come up with a technical solution for some 430 000 affected diesel cars; these would be retrofitted with a new catalytic converter to meet US emission standards.

Mueller also said Volkswagen was planning to invest an additional $900 million (R14.7 billion) in the United States to build a new mid-size SUV. The investment at VW's Chattanooga plant would create about 2000 jobs, he said.

“The US is and remains a core market for the Volkswagen Group.”

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