Every so often – and usually not under the best of circumstance – the field of engineering as a whole is presented with a teaching moment. Volkswagen is currently embroiled in a huge scandal involving emissions testing of 11 Million diesel cars sold in recent years. It’s a problem that could cost VW dearly, to the tune of eighteen Billion dollars in the US alone, and will, without a doubt, end the careers of more than a few Volkswagen employees. In terms of automotive scandals, this is bigger than Unsafe at Any Speed. This is a bigger scandal than the Ford Pinto’s proclivity to explode. This is engineering history in the making, and an enormously teachable moment for ethics in engineering.
Diesel and the Clean Air Act
Cars with diesel engines are far less common in the US as compared to Europe, and the reason for this is not as simple as fuel costs or simple preference. Diesel fuel contains more energy than an equivalent volume of gasoline, which translates to more miles per gallon. This comes at a cost, though: while gasoline engines emit more carbon dioxide, diesel engines emit far more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than their gas-sipping counterparts.
While diesel automobiles make up one third of the passenger vehicle fleet in Europe, they make up barely a fraction of cars on US roads. This comes down to a difference in environmental regulation. Since the introduction of the US Clean Air Act of 1970, NOx emissions have been under tighter controls than CO₂ emissions. In Europe, CO₂ is more tightly controlled than NOx. It’s a simple consequence of regulation that diesel cars would be more popular in Europe than the US.
TDIs and West Virginia University
Sales of Volkswagen diesels have been on the rise in the US in the last few years, despite this more stringent regulation. ‘Clean diesel’ is a goal for the industry, and a European non-profit, the International Council for Clean Transportation, got in touch with researchers at the Center for Alternative Fuels and Engine Emissions (CAFEE) at West Virginia University. The question of how Volkswagen was able to produce a diesel engine in compliance with US regulations was high on the list of priorities, and the team was well-equipped to test Passats, Jettas, and Golfs in real-world conditions.
Despite passing emissions tests required by the US government, CAFEE found these engines were out of compliance. This apparent discontinuity can be brought to light by examining how diesel emissions are measured. An EPA notice of violation explains this was done by a bit of code functioning as a ‘defeat device’ that would sense when the vehicle was under test. Software installed in the electronic control module (ECM) would detect when the car was undergoing emissions testing by reading, “various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation, and barometric pressure.” Under these conditions, the ECM would use a different ‘map’ that would reduce torque and NOx emissions. Under normal conditions – when the vehicle was not being tested for emissions – a separate ‘map’ would be used that would increase acceleration, torque, or fuel economy. CAFEE was able to determine this because of a portable testing rig; instead of testing emissions in a garage on a dynamometer, the researchers performed their tests in real-world conditions, driving around Los Angeles, from LA to Mount Baldy, and from LA to San Diego.
VW Admits They Were Wrong
The CAFEE study wrapped up in 2014, and in December of that year, Volkswagen issued a voluntary recall to address this issue. Meanwhile, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) conducted followup testing to investigate why the onboard diagnostic system was not detecting increased emissions. During this time, VW suggested potential technical issues that would explain the increased emissions. These explanations were not sufficient for CARB or the EPA, and it became clear the 2016 model year diesels would not be given certificates of conformity until the issue was resolved. Volkswagen then did something rather remarkable: it admitted it had designed and installed this ‘defeat device’ that would detect when a vehicle was being tested for emissions.
Which Brings Us To Today…
VW has over 400,000 cars on the road in the US that have this ‘defeat device’ installed in their ECM. The EPA can enforce civil penalties of up to $37,500 for each vehicle not in compliance with regulations, meaning Volkswagen could face a penalty of $18 Billion USD. Volkswagen stock has dropped 20% in the last few days, and the entire chain of command, from the CEO of Volkswagen down to the lowliest engineer are sweating bullets. Volkswagen is now the target of an investigation by the US Department of Justice, and there will be congressional hearings on the issue. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation Volkswagen could find itself in.
Ethics in Engineering
Despite these problems, a congress screaming for answers, investigations by the DoJ, and investors losing years off their lives, we may never know one key fact of this matter: why this ‘defeat device’ was ever implemented.
An engineer, either in Volkswagen or less likely at a subcontractor, signed off on code that would defeat the entire purpose of EPA and Clean Air Act regulations. Someone with the authority to say ‘no’ didn’t, and this code was installed in the electronic control unit of millions of cars. This is the teachable moment of this entire ordeal; at some point, someone who should have known better. At least one engineer will lose their job over this, and certainly more than one executive will be hung out to dry.
Like the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, like the Johnstown flood, and like that one scene at the beginning of Fight Club, this will be one for the engineering ethics text books. If this does turn into a criminal investigation – and chances of that are good – we will eventually learn how this complete abdication of law and social responsibility came to be. Until then, we’re left to guess how one of the biggest blunders of automotive history came to be, and where Volkswagen and the diesel car will be in the years to come.