Volkswagen’s CEO Quits In Wake Of Global Pollution Cheating Scandal

Justin Hyde
Managing Editor

Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn quit the German automaking giant on Wednesday, saying while he had done nothing wrong personally in the widening scandal over fake emission controls in 11 million VW diesels, he accepted responsibility as CEO and company needed a fresh start.

The move comes as criminal investigations and lawsuits grow around the globe in response to revelations by U.S. officials last week that thousands of VW diesels were sold with software that could sense when the cars were being tested for emissions, and turned off some of their pollution controls in everyday driving.

Just Tuesday, Winterkorn had apologized again and promised an outside investigation into how VW came to use the software in question. The company has set aside $7.3 billion to deal with the issues; traders in European stock markets had shaved some $25 billion in value off the company’s shares due to the scandal.

“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,” Winterkorn said in a statement today.

“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 wrong doing on my part.

Volkswagen needs a fresh start – also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation.”

Winterkorn had been CEO since 2007 of the sprawling Volkswagen Group—numbering 13 brands from VW to Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bugatti—with some 580,000 employees. VW’s supervisory board said it would name Winterkorn’s successor Friday and that it expected “further personnel consequences” in the coming days. It added that Winterkorn “had no knowledge of the manipulation of emissions data.”

The 68-year-old German engineer has spent 34 years rising through the massive Volkswagen and Audi bureaucracy, building a penchant for precision that stuck out even among his counterparts. This video from 2011 shows him examining and personally measuring the gaps on a new Hyundai; other anecdotes involve Winterkorn tearing down the transmission from an Audi race car after it failed during a race to find the solution.

In recent months, Winterkorn had survived a bout of palace intrigue sparked by former VW chairman Ferdinand Piech, an heir to founder Ferdinand Porsche who tried to oust Winterkorn and wound up ousted by the board himself. Winterkorn had maintained his pledge to see Volkswagen surpass Toyota as the world’s largest automaker by 2018. 

The most likely successor to Winterkorn will be Porsche chief Matthias Mueller, another life-long VW/Porsche executive.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board have said VW must fix the 482,000 diesels affected in the United States; what those repairs will entail and when they will arrive has yet to be determined. There’s already a small roster of lawsuits seeking class-action status on behalf of VW diesel owners, and the U.S. Justice Department along with state attorneys general are pursuing their own probes.