Rightness. Equality. Transparency.

Volkswagon just admitted they did something very bad. They rigged their engines to cheat on emissions tests and to disable completely in real driving situations. This is so bad on so many levels because it took so much premeditation. Here’s the gist of it:

If the car detected that the steering wheel wasn’t rotating, that the outside temperature and pressure wasn’t changing, and that the engine has been running in certain atypical driving conditions, it would clamp down on the emissions controls to make sure they operated at peak performance.

Unfortunately, these emissions controls must have made the driving experience so much worse that they realized it would kill the marketability of the vehicles. Regardless, the company choose to disable the emissions controls by default and only turn them on when the car detects that it’s being tested. This gave it more punch on the road. What was the effect? Emissions over forty times higher than legally allowed.

No one even tried to discover this. A research team noticed during unrelated testing that the emissions seemed different in the lab verses on the road.

Whatever their CEO might say about this being the cause of a few employees, as a software developer I can’t buy it. First of all, someone on some testing team must have discovered that the car wasn’t peppy enough. Correspondence with engineering teams must have revealed the source of the problem as the emissions system. At this point, the matter must have been investigated but found to be unresolvable with the current implementation. The matter would have probably been brought up with a higher-up product manager, who brought it up even higher, then somewhere along the lines came the suggestion to cheat the tests.

It couldn’t have ended there though. Some team would have had to brainstorm ways to do this, a software team would have been formed. They would have researched models for detecting emissions test conditions, and then would have had to spend time with testing departments to field-test their predictions. In the end, the code would have passed several levels of code review and acceptance.

There’s no end to the culpability here and so many people who could have blown the whistle, but nobody did. Another New York Times author made a good connection between this deceit and the importance of open-source software in critical systems like these. The code hiding the deception was veiled behind intellectual property laws and off-limits to third party audits.

On one final note, to get a little political or controversial, I wonder how big of a deal this will actually become at large. There are about eleven million affected cars out there and they were the product of a company intentionally hoodwinking the public in order to protect their profits. I’ve often heard people throw a stink about immigrants coming up from Mexico on the sole grounds that what they are doing is illegal: it doesn’t matter why, even if the migration stems from a deep-seated and very valid desire to protect one’s family from the imposing threat of the drug war. The clincher is that the actual act of crossing the border was an illegal act and thus the families should go back. Does this ideal transfer to situations like this one with Volkswagon? Will it drive up people’s blood pressure to hear about another car cheating on the emissions exam?

3 thoughts on “Rightness. Equality. Transparency.

  1. The extent of conspiracy required genuinely confuses me. Yes, it would take a lot of people to get this implemented, but on the other hand, if legal ever heard of it, they would be SCREAMING. I can’t imagine a corporate legal department worth its salt that would let its employers do something so obviously likely to result in massive fines and criminal liability if ever discovered. Even lawyers who care for nothing but their client’s interests would be expected to move heaven and earth to try to get their client not to do it.


    1. There’s no reason why a legal team would ever have to be involved. A big company so compartmentalized as they must be, I could easily envision a conversation from boss to employee going like this, “Go ahead and make this happen, but don’t tell anyone how you’re doing it. Definitely don’t tell anyone on legal!”

      I’m sure the investigation will turn up the email chain or whatever that actually reveals how it happened, but my bewilderment is just how many people this would have necessarily had to touch.

      On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that only a few people actually knew, but this would require some more amazingly nefarious ways: some manager shipping off the code to a third party who doesn’t realize the use or the user and then trying to hide it all from internal employees, which again seems pretty implausible to me.

      I could even imagine different teams being asked to do different pieces in which case they could be oblivious, but at some point you end up needing lots of people in the process in order to merge in that code and finalize it.

      Liked by 1 person

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