WOLFSBURG, Germany (Reuters) — Volkswagen is expected to name Matthias Mueller, the head of its Porsche division, as chief executive on Friday and purge other managers to show it is acting decisively to end a crisis over its rigging of U.S. diesel emission tests.
The 62-year-old company veteran will be chosen at a supervisory board meeting to replace Martin Winterkorn, who resigned on Wednesday and said Volkswagen needed a fresh start, a source close to the matter told Reuters.
The board, meeting at the German carmaker's Wolfsburg headquarters, will also dismiss the head of its U.S. business, the top engineers of its luxury Audi and Porsche brands and the head of brand development at its VW division, sources said.
The world's largest automaker is under pressure to show it can get to grips with the biggest business-related scandal in its 78-year history.
Volkswagen shares have plunged as much as 40 percent, wiping tens of billions of euros off its market value, since U.S. regulators said last Friday it had admitted to programming diesel cars to detect when they were being tested and alter the running of their engines to conceal their true emissions.
The scandal has spread, with Germany's transport minister saying on Thursday VW had also cheated on tests in Europe, where it enjoys higher sales than in the United States, and adding on Friday that this affected light vans as well as cars.
Regulators and prosecutors across the world are investigating.
The wider car market has been rocked, with manufacturers fearing a drop in sales of diesel cars and tighter regulations, while customers and motor dealers are furious that Volkswagen has yet to say whether it will have to recall any cars.
"VW needs to be very open about what has happened, how it was possible that this could happen to make sure that this never happens again in the future," said a leading VW shareholder, underlining the importance of the meeting.
"These are priorities that should override all other considerations at the moment."
The task facing Mueller, if his selection is confirmed, is enormous. The company said on Tuesday some 11 million vehicles worldwide were fitted with the software that allowed it to cheat the U.S. tests.
Analysts hope that on Friday it may at last say which models and construction years are affected, and whether cars will need to be refitted.
They also expect it to announce a full investigation of the scandal, with German newspaper Handelsblatt saying it planned to hire U.S. law firm Jones Day to lead a no holds barred inquiry, and to give the outlines of a new management structure likely to be less centralized, but with a clearer system of checks.
Tough times ahead
Volkswagen has long been seen as a symbol of German industrial prowess and the auto industry is one of the country's major employers and a key source of export revenue.
Earlier this month, Volkswagen delivered a presentation to investors at the annual Frankfurt motor show entitled "Stability in Volatile Times". Now Chancellor Angela Merkelis urging it to act quickly to restore confidence in the Volkswagen name.
Frank Schellenberg, a taxi driver in Wolfsburg where the carmaker employs around 70,000 people, said locals felt betrayed and feared the worst.
"They have lost any contact with the real world, the customers who have been buying their cars in good faith," he said, pointing to the firm's 13-storey administrative building. "Everyone in Wolfsburg is expecting tough times and job cuts."
Half a dozen Greenpeace protesters were outside Volkswagen's Wolfsburg plant on Friday, waving banners saying "No more lies!" in front of three diesel-engine VW Golfhatchbacks.
Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst said he would welcome the appointment of Mueller, a former head of product strategy and close to the Piech-Porsche family that controls Volkswagen.
But Bernstein's Max Warburton questioned whether a man who has spent more than three decades at the company was the right man to signal a break with the past. He favours Herbert Diess, a former research and development chief of rival BMW who was hired to run the VW brand in December.
"VW needs to think big and bold," Warburton said, urging the new CEO to offer to buy back and scrap almost 500,000 diesel cars sold in the United States, which would cost about $6 billion, as well as suspend the 100 engineers most closely associated with the affected engines and software.
Another top Volkswagen shareholder said it would have been better for Winterkorn to sort out the crisis before handing over to a successor, pointing to how oil company BPmanaged its recovery from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"I would have preferred Winterkorn to have stuck around for another month or so, through the worst of the storm, then the company appoint another CEO."
Environmentalists have long complained that carmakers game the vehicle testing regime to exaggerate the fuel-efficiency and emissions readings of their vehicles.
The International Council on Clean Transportation, one of the research groups that helped uncover Volkswagen's deception, has published new data showing carbon dioxide emissions in European road tests were on average 40 percent higher than the laboratory results advertised in car sales literature.
European politicians on Wednesday voted to speed up a tightening of testing rules.