VW Emission Scandal

It was reported on May 3, 2018, that ex-CEO of VW, Martin Winterkorn,  was indicted by a Grand Jury in Michigan for making “false representations to regulators and the public” about the emission levels of VW vehicles.   As reported by the BBC (link provided below), US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the indictment showed that Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat its legal requirements went “all the way to the top.”

Kudos to Sessions, federal prosecutors,  and the US justice system.   But even if found guilty by US authorities, it’s unlikely Mr Winterkorn, who resigned soon after the scandal broke in 2015, will ever see the inside of a US courtroom, much less prison, as Germany does not extradite its citizens. according to the BBC.

It was front page news in 2015, that VW had special coding within their cars’  computer to detect when their cars were being tested by the EPA, and make the necessary changes so the cars would pass the emissions tests.  The problem was the nitrous oxide levels (NOx).   The problem was enormous.   If they made their cars compliant for emission standards, the fuel economy would be substantially lower.  In the US,  it is mandatory to post the fuel mileage on the window of new cars.  It is also an obvious selling point,  as it suggests to an owner of an older model, that they could save on both car repairs and fuel costs by trading their old car for a new one.   It is also obvious, that consumers would select VW over other car manufacturers based on better fuel economy.   So, any attempt to fix emissions, would result in a fraud case, by all consumers based on gas consumption.

The Wikipedia summary is very good, but I have supplemented it with a couple of links, relating nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere with health problems and agricultural crises.   I would have a requirement that all automotive engineers take at least one course in environmental science.

Things go wrong in companies all the time.   I worked for an oil company (Texaco) and fortunately, never was directly involved in  engineering decisions involving deceit or fraud.   But, I knew of a number of cases, where if an engineer did go public with certain information, it would likely result in the engineer getting fired, and the whole matter covered up.   It is a real tough situation.  This is exactly the situation VW engineers faced.

The real documentation of the fraud in  VW case, is  the computer program itself, which is stored in a non-readable binary machine code in every car that is sold.   It isn’t a problem of the code being locked or encrypted, but the form of the code. There is a solution to this, but let’s wait to the end of the story.

Eleven million cars produced by VW, from 2009 to 2014, had the rigged software.   Of the 11 million, 500,000 cars were sold in the US.   These were diesel cars, which are not very popular in the US.  My guess is engineers were told a lie.  If caught, we’ll do a recall and fix the error.  This has become standard operating procedure.   Of course, it wasn’t fixable.   Perhaps, a second lie was also told, “we can’t get caught, because it’s all buried in the unreadable machine code.”

Per Wikipedia, “Engineers had recognized inadequacies in emissions tests, dating back to 1989.   The Washington Post also reported that in the late 1990s, EPA engineers at Virginia Testing Laboratory had built a system called ROVER, designed to test a car’s emissions on the road. The project was shut down in 2001, despite preliminary tests indicating gaps between emissions from lab tests and real world tests of about 10 to 20 percent.”     They didn’t contemplate how “on the road testing could catch cheaters.”

It was completely by chance that VW got caught. Under a $50,000 grant,  in early 2014, two professors and two students began testing emission under road conditions, using a portable emissions measurement system.  Under real-world driving conditions the Jetta exceeded US emissions limits “by a factor of 15 to 35” while the Passat exceeded the limit “by a factor of 5 to 20, according to Wikipedia.

Now, what Michael Winterkorn is charged with, is not the initial crime of cheating the testing, but the later concealment from the consumer,  after he learned  the VW cars had the defeat device.

Cars have computers to fine tune the performance.   It was pretty inconceivable that the engineers would create the defeat device,  but they are encouraged to be “problem solvers” and to innovative to gain  a competitive advantage over the other car makers.  It seems a simple solution has been suggested,  to require only readable and public code  to be used in cars.     Unfortunately,  EPA is pretty dysfunctional with Scott Pruitt at the helm.

Stay tuned,



Wikipedia:  VW Emissions Scandal

BBC: Diesel emissions scandal

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