Audi's decision to make Volvo's Peter Mertens its next r&d boss was the smart move after having two longtime VW Group executives forced out of the job because of their potential involvement in the automaker's emissions-cheating scandal.
With Mertens, Audi adds a senior executive from a premium carmaker who has never worked for any of the VW Group's brands.
The downside for Audi is that Mertens cannot join the company until he negotiates his departure from Volvo. In many cases executives to make a move like this have to wait about half a year before they can start. That's how long current VW brand CEO Herbert Diess had to wait before BMW Group released him from his contractual obligations. VW commercial vehicles boss Andreas Renschler had to sit out a full year before he could be freed from his non-compete clause with former employer Daimler.
Assuming that Mertens has to wait six months – neither Volvo nor Audi will comment other than to say he will start his new role “at the earliest possible opportunity” – it could be May 2017 before he joining Audi's management team in Ingolstadt.
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler was, however, already burned once when picking a company insider for this job. He replaced disgraced engineering genius Ulrich Hackenberg with, of all people, the VW Group's chief of powertrain development – ground zero of the emissions scandal. Sure enough Stefan Knirsch didn't last nine months before he, too, was forced out due to his as yet unclear involvement.
When Audi made headlines earlier this month because of allegations that California regulators found new defeat devices on its models, Stadler's job appeared to be at risk. It's safe to say he couldn't afford another mistake like the one he made with Knirsch, even if it means leaving its technical development in limbo for months.
Fortunately for the Audi CEO, he can take comfort in knowing that sister brand Porsche did fine without an active r&d boss. Porsche placed its top engineer, Wolfgang Hatz, on leave soon after the scandal was made public last September. Hatz was put on the sidelines because prior to coming to Porsche he was VW Group's powertrain boss.
Since Porsche has no diesel expertise of its own, any one of its senior r&d managers could likely have replaced him. Nevertheless, Porsche stuck with Hatz in the hopes that he could clear his name while the automaker's chassis development chief filled in.
As the investigation into the VW Group's cheating dragged on Porsche decided to replaced Hatz with Michael Steiner. Going six months without an r&d head has not had any noticeable effects on Porsche so it's unlikely to cause too much disruptions at Audi either. Best to start this time with a clean slate, so the unimpeachable Mertens is just the manager for the job.