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 retained a crisis communications firm. In the US, the company faces a fine of $18 billion, though it appears unlikely it would be forced to pay the full amount.