‘Picking on’ Volkswagen: Why Follow Dieselgate?

[photo: macwagen via Flickr]

[photo: macwagen via Flickr]

One of our commenters described my attention to Dieselgate as ‘picking on’ Volkswagen. It’s not as if there haven’t been scandalous problems with other automotive industry manufacturers, like General Motors’ ignition switches or Takata’s airbag failures, right?

But Volkswagen earns greater attention here at this site because:

1) A critical mass of emptywheel readers are not familiar with the automotive industry, let alone manufacturing; they do not regularly follow automotive news. Quite a number are familiar with enterprise information security, but not car manufacturing or with passenger vehicle security. Many of the readers here are also in policy making, law enforcement, judiciary — persons who may influence outcomes at the very beginning or very end of the product manufacturing life cycle.

2) This is the first identified* multi-year incidence in which an automotive industry manufacturer using computer programming of a street-ready vehicle to defraud consumers and willfully violate multiple U.S. laws. This willfulness wholly separates the nature of this risk from other passenger vehicle vulnerabilities, ex: Fiat Chrysler’s hackable Uconnect dashboard computers or Nissan’s unprotected APIs for keyless remotes. (These latter events arose from inadequate info security awareness though responsiveness of vehicle manufacturers after notification may be in question.)

3) Volkswagen Group is the single largest passenger vehicle manufacturer in Europe. This isn’t a little deal considering half of all passenger vehicles in Europe are diesel-powered. Health and environmental damage in the U.S. from 600,000 passenger diesels has been bad enough; it’s taking lives in the tens of thousands across Europe. 75,000 premature deaths in 2012 alone were attributed to urban NO2 exposures, the source of which is diesel engines. It was testing in the U.S. against U.S. emissions standards which brought VW’s ‘cheating’ to light making it impossible for the EU to ignore any longer. The environmental damage from all Volkswagen passenger diesels combined isn’t localized; these additional non-compliant emissions exacerbate global climate change.

These are the reasons why Dieselgate deserved heightened scrutiny here to date — but the reasons why this scandal merits continued awareness have everything to do with an as-yet unrealized future.

We are on the cusp of a dramatic paradigm shift in transportation, driven in no small part by the need for reduced emissions. Development and implementation of battery-powered powertrains are tightly entwined with artificial intelligence development for self-driving cars. Pittsburgh PA is already a testing ground for a fleet of self-driving Uber vehicles; Michigan’s state senate seeks changes to the state’s vehicle code to permit self-driving cars to operate without a human driver to intervene.

All of this represents a paradigm shift in threats to the public on U.S. highways. Self-driving car makers and their AI partners claim self-driving vehicles will be safer than human-driven cars. We won’t know what the truth is for some time, whether AI will make better decisions than humans.

But new risks arise:

  • An entire line of vehicles can pose a threat if they are programmed to evade laws, ex: VW’s electronic control unit using proprietary code which could be manipulated before installation. (Intentional ‘defect’.)
  • An entire line of vehicles can be compromised if they have inherent vulnerabilities built into them, ex: Fiat Chrysler’s Uconnect dashboard computers. (Unintentional ‘defect’.)

Let’s ‘pick on’ another manufacturer for a moment: imagine every single Fiat Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep vehicle on the road in 5-10 years programmed to evade state and federal laws on emissions and diagnostic tests for road-worthiness. Imagine that same programming exploit used by criminals for other means. We’re no longer looking at a mere hundred thousand vehicles a year but millions, and the number of people at risk even greater.

The fear of robots is all hype, until one realizes some robots are on the road now, and in the very near future all vehicles will be robots. Robots are only as perfect as their makers.

An additional challenge posed by Volkswagen is its corporate culture and the deliberate use of a language barrier to frustrate fact-finding and obscure responsibility. Imagine now foreign transportation manufacturers not only using cultural barriers to hide their deliberate violation of laws, but masking the problems in their programming using the same techniques. Because of GM’s labyrinthine corporate bureaucracy, identifying the problems which contributed to the ignition switch scandal was difficult. Imagine how much more cumbersome it would be to tease out the roots if the entire corporate culture deliberately hid the source using culture, even into the coding language itself? Don’t take my word for how culture is used to this end — listen to a former VW employee who explains how VW’s management prevaricates on its ‘involvement’ in Dieselgate (video at 14:15-19:46).

Should we really wait for another five to 10 years to ‘pick on’ manufacturers of artificially intelligent vehicles — cars with the ability lie to us as much as their makers will? Or should we look very closely now at the nexus of transportation and programming where problems already occur, and create effective policy and enforcement for the road ahead?
* A recent additional study suggests that Volkswagen Group is not the only passenger diesel manufacturer using emissions controls defeats.

15 replies
  1. martin says:

    Hahahahahahahahahaha…hahahahahahaha… ! Living proof the US of A is the DUMBEST FUCKING COUNTRY ON THE PLANET. One day.. coming sooner than you think.. someone will hack a car System wide, and kill a thousand people, or more, and better yet, leave a million cars along side the hiway, PERMANENTLY disabled.

    So fuck you new car buyers. You are an idiot.

  2. martin says:

    Meanwhile, the ever present source of complete, world wide failure of ANY thing dependent on the internet for functionality, is in jeopardy. PERIOD. And, like I’ve been saying for 5 years…it’s only a matter of time..


    Meanwhile.. the DCOTP goes..meh..don’t bother me.. I’m playing Minecraft. …hahahahaha.. minecraft. The dumbest, time wasting, moronic game ever invented to waste a humans potential.

  3. Peterr says:

    To me, the Dieselgate/VW mess is of a piece with the efforts to evade regulation in the banking industry. The same corporate mentality at work at VW is what was behind the Wells Fargo incentive system that scammed and defrauded millions of customer who were — without their knowledge — set up with additional bank accounts and credit cards, and then charged fees for accounts they never asked for and never knew about until the bills started rolling in. “Just do whatever needs to be done, to meet the goals, beat the competition, and keep the stock prices up.”

    I like what you’re saying about culture and using a language barrier to evade responsibility, but it’s not as if the EU and the German government isn’t also going after VW. Winterkorn et al. can’t plead “Wir werstehen Englisch nicht” when asked by Germans about lying to German and European regulators — including both environmental and financial regulators.

    • Bardi says:

      As you said, this whole diesel-gate issue is the tip of the iceberg. I found that diesel trucks operating in the US have been given waivers for years allowing much more pollution than the VW issue.

      Perhaps we should work to remove the 2×4 from our own eye before pointing fingers at VW.

  4. Mary McCurnin says:

    I inherited a 2006 passat t.2. It is not a diesel but it is the first massively computerized car VW made. It is the biggest piece of shit car I have ever come across. It breaks in ways that I could never imagine. We once came out of the grocery store, got in the car and the emergency brake would not go off. VW wanted $600 to fix it. Ron went to the salvage yard and spent $25 and fixed it himself. We are now faced with finding a part that covers the air filter. It is so hard to take apart many people break them. Ours broke. We headed out to the salvage yard but there were none to be found. The dude said to check back occasionally. It seems like they made the car very hard and very expensive to fix. It is probably the last car I ever own, so I can’t threatened to never buy a VW again.

  5. Mary McCurnin says:

    oh and the check engine light never goes off, the airbag light is on due to a recall issue that they don’t have the parts for ever, and the tire gauge light is one but the tires are fine, the windows stopped rolling up, etc etc.

  6. arbusto says:

    Gott’a love automation. Airbus A320, was I believe, the first fly by wire (computer) commercial aircraft. The code ran over a million lines and commingled pressurization, aileron, flaps, empennage , engine, navigation, system instrumentation, flight instruments, etc.. The engineers decided that a maximum pitch and bank of 30 drgs was all that was needed; collisions be damned.

    Wonder what testing and redundancies and standards are/ will be used to alleviate us of the drudgery of driving. Will insurance companies insure these wonders of the ages or will we, us plebs, indemnify and hold harmless manufactures, sub-contractors, consultants, temporary employees, distributors and their employees, ad nauseum by government fiat.

    • Ed says:

      “The engineers decided that a maximum pitch and bank of 30 drgs was all that was needed; collisions be damned.”

      You have it backwards. The normal flight mode (out of five) supports such limits while providing a tremendous number of protections. Forcing the aircraft out of those limits puts it into one of the other four modes, the alternate mode being most likely with elimination of many of the “protections”, but not all.

      My 25,000 hours is pretty evenly divided between Boeing and Airbus. Both have their foibles, I appreciate the Boeing pilot philosophy (except their rather small cockpits – 737) and I can appreciate the Airbus sense of automation (one can easily get too comfortable). They each have their compromises.

  7. blueba says:

    One rather important phenomenon which has so far gone unmentioned (understandable, this article is not meant to be entirely comprehensive) is the job loss due to robotic vehicles. Today, right now, buses and other forms of public transport in some European countries are being converted to driverless – good by bus drivers – in Mexico freight is moving into the US on driverless 18 wheelers – good by jobs. Across the world just from driving and related jobs (not to mention the lunch counters) tens of millions of jobs are going to no longer exist in 10-15 years.

    Society is totally unprepared for the job losses to robotics and “Artificial Intelligence” – and by the way you professionals AI is after your job too, already legal research is being done by AI – the elimination of jobs is not a bottom up process AI is eliminating jobs at all levels.

    As far as I know no government or power broker anywhere in the world (even China) is prepared to confront a world where work in any traditional sense is unnecessary. There is no attempt what-so-ever to offer a way for those displaced people to earn a living, at present they will simply be added to the 4+ billion people who today have no access to clean water or toilets (2/3rds of the human population).

    Of course the 4+ billion people should be our highest priority but no one even mentions them they don’t exist in the Guardian or emptywheel or in the thoughts and concerns of those of us (myself included) in the “lucky” third.

  8. Rayne says:

    martin (5:47) — You realize if it wasn’t for the U.S. the EU, Japan, Korea, and now possibly 20 other countries wouldn’t have begun investigation into VW’s fraud, right? Just watch the video I linked — the former VW employee says very clearly that VW is only afraid of the U.S.

    Peterr (6:23) — EU+Germany ignored years of air quality sampling which told them something was very wrong; they also ignored the ICCT’s report when released in early 2014 — not exactly a sign of good faith effort to comply with either EU emissions laws or investment disclosure requirements. If the EU and German government didn’t go after VW (and they didn’t bother until the EPA drew a line in the sand in 3Q2015), minority investors, the U.S. and other countries would have ample reason to say, “Keine Volkswagen Group Produkte, danke.”

    Mary McCurnin (8:35) — Things really went south at VW after the 1980s; I can’t rule out its inception due to a single individual’s corrupt influence on automotive corporate culture at both GM and VW. We’d bought a new 1984 Rabbit GTI, racked up 200K miles on it before we sold it. Really tight engineering. Engine oil was still so clear at 190K miles that when the Check Engine light busted, we couldn’t see the oil on the dipstick when we stopped to check the oil level. The car is still running around town here, has been through a couple young men’s hands since we sold it. But after 1980s, wow, just not the same quality.

    pdaly (11:17) — Think this technology is still very new; wonder how much ink, print or script type, paper composition will affect the output of this technology. Good point about privacy, though I think the first uses will be on cases where privacy is not so much an issue as is destruction of the medium were it to be opened. I know I’d seen this technology reported on earlier this year; I’ll have to poke around in my history to see when it first popped up. Might already have been some attempts to use it since first report –?

    arbusto (12:36) — We’re already doing a pretty shitty job not holding fossil fuel companies accountable for earthquake damages they’ve caused to individuals. Can’t believe OK residents put up with insurance only paying 20% of all claims AND on insurance they paid for. Fracking companies created the risk and should bear the costs, not individuals. I can see the same damned thing happening with self-driving AI — Michigan’s vehicle code changes, for example, but insurance commissioner not pursuing code changes in tandem?

    blueba (7:50) — Still working on that, trying to produce something that doesn’t sound like a Unabomber manifesto. As I noted in article, everybody’s afraid of robots, but the real robots are already here and taking over the world. Like the AI+algorithms used in HFT, performing extractive skimming of billions of dollars off all investment transactions without adding any value to either buyers or sellers at the ends of the trades. Already made enough money to buy the world and done so outside any oversight.

  9. Ed Walker says:

    One of the reasons we have these problems is the agreement of governments around the world to the idea that it’s fine for computer code to be a trade secret.
    A good starting place is to make all software open to view and copy. Of course we would have to think of some way to monetize software, but I’m sure we have enough lawyers to handle that issue.
    It’s particularly important that voting software be open, for obvious reasons. It’s bizarre that anyone would trust Diebold in the face of the corporate corruption that we see everywhere as Peterr points out.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Picking on Volkswagen?” How droll. VW is a behemoth. It is quite capable of defending itself against any number of would be Davids, and Goliaths. The shame is that the damaging excesses of such large companies are not investigated more.

  11. rugger9 says:

    What is really going on here is what will happen under TPP, since corporations will be completely free to ignore any law they want.
    VW deliberately did this for years, no different than Wells Fargo’s scandal this week (the fine should have been 185 Billion, because we’re looking at less than 1-2 hundred bucks per crime. Until the perps are jailed as well as their supervision on the C-level, fines will remain just another business expense to go into the benefit/cost ratio. If that number exceeds 1, the crime will be committed.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      So that government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations, shall not perish from the earth.

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