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Herbert Diess, head of the VW brand and member of the board of management at Volkswagen AG, speaks during an interview at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Beginning his presentation six minutes late, Volkswagen chairman Herbert Diess dispensed with the elephant in the room on Tuesday night before introducing an all-electric Golf and a futuristic version of the once-beloved VW van.

Going immediately to the unresolved diesel scandal, Mr. Diess opened his CES keynote address with stated remorse.

"We disappointed our customers and the American people, for which I am truly sorry and for which I apologize," he told hundreds of convention-goers and media in a theatre of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

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"We at Volkswagen are disappointed that this could happen within the company we love," he said. "We are doing everything we can to make things right."

The U.S. Department of Justice has laid a civil complaint against the company in Detroit regarding its use of software to cheat U.S. emissions tests, which was exposed in September. The software sensed when testing was being conducted and lowered engine performance to mitigate the output of pollutants. The company is potentially liable for hundreds of millions in fines and penalties from class actions.

Mr. Diess said 11 million vehicles worldwide were affected – the majority in Europe, where a settlement has been reached. The complication in the United States regards different allowable levels there of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. He pledged to reach an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California's Air Resources Board soon.

VW has since embarked on the process "of redefining and re-engineering every aspect of the company," he said, adding that the "new VW" stands for affordable electric mobility, fully connected vehicles, autonomous driving and an entirely new user experience.

"Nothing less than a smartphone on wheels," added Gary Shapiro, president of VW's consumer technology division, when called on stage as the company rolled out the all-electric e-Golf Touch for the first time. Introduced as a concept vehicle last year, it is slated for sale by the end of 2016.

The car features hand-gesture operation (no buttons) and voice recognition, plus a 9.2-inch touchscreen with 1280 x 640 resolution and the ability to customize the screen in 10 different themes to keep information handy without having to switch menus.

Films from the 1960s of the long-gone VW van – a vehicle made for tripping – were shown before the future-generation model rolled on stage. The Budd-e concept vehicle will recharge to 80-per-cent battery capacity in 30 minutes. And the electronics are designed to interact intuitively with the driver.

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"It thinks, learns, understands us," Mr. Diess said.

Astrid Kassner, a user-experience engineer with the company, explained that the infotainment system is designed to create a playlist from the content on each passenger's laptop. Video and photos will all be merged and displayed on a large screen.

"Instead of staring at your own devices, you experience the content as a group," Ms. Kassner said.

Doors respond to voice commands or gestures, the dashboard is filled with two HD displays that blend into one large surface, and connectivity to your home ranges from seeing who has just rung the doorbell (and letting them in) to checking the beer stock in the fridge.

As have his peers at the CES, Mr. Diess emphasized the growing interaction between humans and vehicles. As smartphones, tablets and cameras have become essential elements of daily life, they are migrating into the car as on-board computers evolve and software becomes more intelligent.

Mr. Diess also announced a deal, signed Tuesday, with Mobileye to strengthen his company's digital mapping, an essential component of autonomous driving capability.

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All that is for the future, both near and distant. As for 2016, "the most important task is to solve the diesel issue in the U.S.," he said.

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