Winterkorn, 68, has led VW since 2007 and oversaw the German automaker's staggering growth around the world. His departure comes less than a week after the EPA alleged the company has been cheating on diesel emissions testing for years, and that its cars might emit 40 times more pollution than legally allowed. The EPA says about 482,000 vehicles are affected in the United States, and VW estimates at least 11 million vehicles globally might have the software that allows the vehicles to cheat emissions regulations.
"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," Winterkorn said in a statement. "I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing 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 stepped down after an executive committee meeting of the VW Supervisory Board Wednesday. The committee agreed Winterkorn had no knowledge of wrongdoing. "The executive committee has tremendous respect for his willingness to nevertheless assume responsibility and, in so doing, to send a strong signal both internally and externally," VW said in a statement.
Volkswagen is conducting an internal review and expects more "personnel consequences" in the coming days. It also will voluntarily submit a complaint to the state prosecutor's office in Brunswick, Germany, and cooperate with the expected criminal investigation.
Winterkorn's departure is the latest development in VW's burgeoning diesel emissions scandal. It came to light last week after the work of researchers at West Virginia University detailed the software manipulation designed to skirt EPA tests, and it has resounded as governments around the world examine Volkswagen's diesel vehicles. The company set aside $7.3 billion to deal with the fallout and has retained the law firm that defended BP during its oil spill. In the US, the company faces a fine of $18 billion, though it appears unlikely it would be forced to pay the full amount.
In a meeting on Wednesday, September 23, the Executive Committee of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG discussed in detail the manipulation of emissions data of Volkswagen Group diesel engines and came to the following conclusions:
1. The Executive Committee takes this matter extremely seriously. The Executive Committee recognizes not only the economic damage caused, but also the loss of trust among many customers worldwide.
2. The Executive Committee agrees that these incidents need to be clarified with great conviction and that mistakes are corrected. At the same time, the Executive Committee is adamant that it will take the necessary decisive steps to ensure a credible new beginning.
3. The Executive Committee has great respect for Chairman Professor Dr. Winterkorn's offer to resign his position and to ask that his employment agreement be terminated. The Executive Committee notes that Professor Dr. Winterkorn had no knowledge of the manipulation of emissions data. The Executive Committee has tremendous respect for his willingness to nevertheless assume responsibility and, in so doing, to send a strong signal both internally and externally. Dr. Winterkorn has made invaluable contributions to Volkswagen. The company's rise to global company is inextricably linked to his name. The Executive Committee thanks Dr. Winterkorn for towering contributions in the past decades and for his willingness to take responsibility in this criticall phase for the company. This attitude is illustrious.
4. Recommendations for new personnel will be presented at the upcoming meeting of the Supervisory Board this Friday.
5. The Executive Committee is expecting further personnel consequences in the next days. The internal Group investigations are continuing at a high tempo. All participants in these proceedings that has resulted in unmeasurable harm for Volkswagen, will be subject to the full consequences.
6. The Executive Committee have decided that the company will voluntarily submit a complaint to the State Prosecutors' office in Brunswick. In the view of the Executive Committee criminal proceedings may be relevant due to the irregularities. The investigations of the State Prosecutor will be supported in all form from the side of Volkswagen.
7. The Executive Committee proposes that the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG create a special committee, under whose leadership further clarifying steps will follow, including the preparation of the necessary consequences. In this regard, the Special Committee would make use of external advice. Further details about this will be decided at the Supervisory Board meeting on Friday.
8. The Executive Committee is aware that coming to terms with the crisis of trust will be a long term task that requires a high degree of consistency and thoroughness.
9. The Executive Committee will work on these tasks together with the employees and the Management Board. Volkswagen is a magnificent company that depends on the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people. We consider it our task that this company regains the trust of our customers in every respect.
In a statement, Winterkorn said:
"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.
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.
Volkswagen needs a fresh start - also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation.
I have always been driven by my desire to serve this company, especially our customers and employees. Volkswagen has been, is and will always be my life.
The process of clarification and transparency must continue. This is the only way to win back trust. I am convinced that the Volkswagen Group and its team will overcome this grave crisis."