Rupert Stadler, the former chief executive of the automaker Volkswagen’s Audi division, has agreed to plead guilty to charges in Germany related a vast emissions cheating scandal, becoming the highest-ranking executive to be convicted in the case, which changed the direction of the car industry.
A Munich state court said Wednesday that Mr. Stadler would accept a plea deal offered by a judge, which involves a suspended sentence of up to two years in exchange for a full confession and payment of a fine of 1.1 million euros, or $1.2 million.
Mr. Stadler, 60, who was also a member of Volkswagen’s management board, was accused of allowing diesel cars made by Audi to remain on sale even after the parent company admitted in 2015 that millions of its vehicles were equipped with software designed to mask excess emissions.
The scandal cost Volkswagen tens of billions of dollars in fines, legal settlements and lawyers’ fees and had a lasting impact on the auto industry. It inspired European lawmakers to impose much tighter limits on auto emissions, accelerating a transition from internal combustion engines to electric cars. Volkswagen became one of the first big German automakers to invest heavily in battery power, which executives saw as a way to restore the company’s tarnished reputation.
Mr. Stadler has been on trial in Munich since September 2020. Testimony was nearing an end last week when Judge Stefan Weickert offered him the deal. In Germany, evidence is typically heard intermittently and trials can drag on for years. Judges sometimes offer defendants a plea agreement after concluding that the evidence against them is strong.
Wolfgang Hatz, who led motor development at Audi and Porsche and was tried alongside Mr. Stadler, pleaded guilty to related charges last week. A third defendant, Zaccheo Giovanni Pamio, a former Audi executive who was involved in designing emissions systems, also accepted a plea deal.
Mr. Stadler, who had insisted throughout the trial that he did nothing wrong, agreed to accept the plea deal during a hearing on Wednesday morning, the court said. Prosecutors in the case also support the deal.
Mr. Stadler is expected to make his confession in two weeks’ time, allowing the trial to wrap up by late June, the court said.
The two men were among the most influential executives at Volkswagen, which continues to maintain in court that the cheating was the work of middle managers who hid the wrongdoing from the management board.
Mr. Stadler became chief of Audi, one of Volkswagen’s most profitable brands, in 2007 after working as chief of staff to Ferdinand Piëch, the Porsche family scion who dominated Volkswagen for two decades beginning in the 1990s. Mr. Stadler left Audi in 2018 after spending several months in pretrial detention.
In 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to fraud and other federal charges in Washington, after admitting that engineers rigged nearly 600,000 diesel cars sold in the United States to cheat on emissions tests. The cars were programmed to recognize when they were being tested on rollers in a lab. If so, the cars produced emissions that were compliant with regulations.
On the road, when regulators were not looking, the cars produced more toxic nitrogen oxides than a long-haul truck. Volkswagen diesels were not capable of consistently meeting emissions standards without suffering engine damage.
The software that enabled the cheating was originally developed by Audi, according to testimony and court documents, and adapted by Volkswagen engineers in 2007 after they had trouble getting their diesel engines to comply with United States standards. The illegal software was also deployed in Europe and other regions.
Volkswagen paid $4.7 billion in criminal and civil penalties as part of a settlement in 2017 with United States authorities. The company paid another $15 billion as part of a settlement with owners of VW, Audi and Porsche diesel cars.
The confessions of Mr. Stadler and Mr. Hatz mean that they will endure much lighter penalties than two lower-ranking executives, Oliver Schmidt and James Liang, who served multiyear prison sentences after being arrested in the United States and pleading guilty to charges.
A separate trial of several former Volkswagen managers is underway in Braunschweig. At least six others have been indicted in the United States but not arrested because they remained in Germany, which does not extradite its citizens.
Martin Winterkorn, the Volkswagen chief executive until he resigned in 2015 after the wrongdoing came to light, faces charges in the United States and Germany, but it is questionable whether he will ever face trial because of ill health. He has denied wrongdoing.
Volkswagen continues to suffer from the fallout of the scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission is pursuing a civil case against the company, accusing it of defrauding bond investors by not fully informing them about the scope of the cheating. Volkswagen is contesting the suit, which is scheduled to go to trial next year.