Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn stepped down today, taking responsibility for the German automaker's rigging of U.S. diesel emissions tests.
"Volkswagen needs a fresh start -- also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation," Winterkorn said in a statement.
"I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group," the embattled CEO said. “As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part."
The automaker’s supervisory board will consider successors at its meeting on Friday. Possible replacements as CEO are Matthias Mueller, the head of Porsche who is backed by members of the Porsche family, and Herbert Diess, who recently came over from rival BMW, a person familiar with the matter said.
Mueller oversees the brand that’s a profit driver for the group. Diess, who joined in July to take charge of the VW brand, helped BMW cut billions of euros in purchasing costs during the global financial crisis.
Even with new leadership, it will be extraordinarily difficult for VW to get that fresh start. In the few days since the scandal came to light, the company has been barraged with news of class-action lawsuits, investigations by state, federal and international regulatory bodies, and U.S. congressional hearings that will force it to explain how the cheating came about and how it went undetected for seven years.
It also faces the task of bringing into compliance as many 11 million vehicles worldwide, and mollifying millions of angry customers whose cars may see declines in fuel economy, performance and value.
Senior members of Volkswagen's supervisory board said in a separate statement Wednesday that they expected additional executives to leave the company in the coming days as an internal investigation seeks to identify who was responsible for what has turned into the biggest scandal in Volkswagen's 78-year history.
Winterkorn had been under heavy fire since revelations Friday that the company was cheating on tests by fitting its diesel vehicles with software that masked their real-world emissions, in violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act.
The pressure intensified this week as the company announced that some 11 million vehicles worldwide had the illegal software.