BERLIN — Volkswagen’s chief executive was under withering pressure Monday as an emissions-testing scandal erased more than $15 billion from the company’s market value in a single trading session.
The stock plunge followed revelations that the German carmaker had rigged U.S. emissions tests for about 500,000 diesel cars. VW CEO Martin Winterkorn apologized, acknowledging that his company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public.”
But saying sorry wasn’t enough for investors digesting the financial and reputational implications of the scandal on the world’s top-selling carmaker.
Volkswagen’s share price plunged a stunning 17.1 percent Monday in the first trading since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the violations, reaching a near three-year low, after tumbling more than 20 percent earlier in the day.
VW has halted U.S. sales of the affected vehicles and pledged to cooperate with regulators in an investigation that could potentially lead to $18 billion in fines against the company.
This case also could test the U.S. Justice Department’s initiative, announced Sept. 9, to hold individual executives accountable for corporate wrongdoing.
“We will be working closely with DOJ throughout this investigation,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said. Separately, a VW official confirmed that Justice has contacted the company about the case. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The EPA warned VW that it may refer the case to Justice for enforcement, and noted that in addition to corporate fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle, individuals could be fined $3,750 per violation of the Clean Air Act, which could theoretically add up to $18.75 billion, given that half a million cars are involved.
Industry analysts said the carmaker’s CEO faces difficult questions in the coming days, particularly when its board is scheduled to meet Friday.
“At the moment, I’d be surprised if Winterkorn can ride this out, but in Germany there’s often a slightly slower process in these matters,” said Christian Stadler, a professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School. If VW were a U.S. company, the CEO would have gone more or less immediately, he said.
The EPA says Volkswagen violated the federal Clean Air Act by installing “defeat devices” — software programmed to switch engines to a cleaner mode during official emissions testing. The software then switches off again, enabling cars to emit as much as 40 times the legal limit of pollutants during normal driving.
For a company to engage in such blatant trickery, top executives must have been informed, said Guido Reinking, a German auto expert.
Winterkorn is an engineer by training who led research and development across the VW group beginning in 2007, and became chairman of the management board the same year.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine that he didn’t know about this special way of programming the engine,” Reinking told German television station n-tv.
Volkswagen marketed these diesel-powered cars, which account for about 25 percent of sales, as being better for the environment.
The EPA has ordered VW to fix the cars at its own expense, but said car owners do not need to take any immediate action. The cars threaten public health, but the violations pose no safety hazards, and the cars remain legal to drive and sell while Volkswagen comes up with a recall and repair plan, the agency said.
Volkswagen also could face sanctions in California. The carmaker had insisted for years that unrelated technical issues or unexpected conditions were to blame for the higher pollution levels state regulators found during regular driving. VW acknowledged installing the “defeat devices” only after the California Air Resources Board and the EPA refused to approve its 2016 diesel models without a better explanation.
German authorities also are investigating.
“The auto manufacturers have to work closely with U.S. authorities to comprehensively clarify the matter,” Michael Schroeren, a spokesman for Germany’s environment ministry told reporters in Berlin. “We expect reliable information from the car manufacturers so that (German authorities) can check whether comparable manipulation has happened in Germany or Europe.”
Citing unnamed company officials, German news agency dpa reported that key members of the VW board will hold a crisis meeting on the issue Wednesday.
Germany’s transport minister meanwhile said authorities would examine VW models to check whether similar manipulation had taken place in Europe.
“Independent checks routinely take place,” Alexander Dobrindt told Germany’s Bild newspaper. “However, I have instructed the Federal Motor Transport Authority to order strict, specific follow-up tests of the VW diesel models by independent experts immediately.”
Volkswagen recently edged out Japan’s Toyota to become the world’s top-selling automaker, but it has had a difficult year amid signs of faltering sales in the U.S. and China. Its share price has fallen from more than 250 euros.
Toyota had to recall 9 million cars between 2009 and 2011 after some of the Japanese automaker’s vehicles experienced unintended acceleration. That’s far more than the half-million or so that VW is having to fix. The cost to Toyota, including fines, was a little more $5 billion, according to Warwick Business School’s Stadler.
“To some extent the cheating by Volkswagen seems more blatant, but the numbers are lower and there are no fatalities involved,” Stadler said. “This suggests that in the ‘heat of the moment,’ the long-term effect on Volkswagen may be overstated. Sure it will hurt, but maybe not quite as bad as we expect right now.”
Tom Krisher of the AP contributed to this report.