Ethics In Engineering: Volkswagen’s Diesel Fiasco

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.

359 thoughts on “Ethics In Engineering: Volkswagen’s Diesel Fiasco

  1. A volcano erupted in the South Pacific & spewed enough toxic materials for weeks… Enough to vacate every car manufacturers efforts to meet seriously questionable arbitrary bureaucratic setpoint since the 70’s, when all this pseudo-science, golden egg for many climate co-conspirator was laid… And here we have some very intelligent & technical folks who have yet to question the roots of the “were all gonna die” fanaticism unfolding. I’m completely dumbfounded here. Just your many assumptions on the way a diesel works is Kabuki Theatre…. WOW.. Just speechless now!

    1. I can tell you that the air in the Los Angeles basin is significantly cleaner than it was 40 – 50 years ago despite more cars there… I don’t think that it was the result of the volcano stopping…

      1. The air quality in Los Angeles was from stationary sources, not automobiles.

        Now that California CARB is on a high hoarse about VW, what about the fraud committed by Hien Tran, of CARB, in falsifying his diesel research under a degree he did not have. Then Mary Nichols, of CARB, used this fake research to pass new laws costing truck drivers and heavy equipment operators billions to reduce diesel emissions. Never mind that CARB knew of the fraud before legislation was passed, they lied for the purpose of passing the legislation.

        How much should we charge CARB for lying?

        How about we use this as an engineering gone wrong metric.

        1. I agree that stationary sources contributed to the poor air quality as well, but to say that automobiles did not contribute is incorrect:

          While Hien Tran falsified his credentials, he did not falsify the research. His research results aligned with other similar research and that is why the new laws were passed. If you have any links to valid research that debunks his results (and doesn’t just trash Hien Tran or CARB), please share.

          1. Citing a URL from the web does not prove anything. There are plenty of people posting articles with opinions and beliefs which have nothing to do with Science. Although I would point out that the article you cite attributes 50% of the reactive organic gases to stationary sources.

            I lived in the Los Angeles area 45 years ago. I used to go to the top of the parking towers on second street in Santa Monica and look at the Angeles National Forest 30 miles away. I have a solid recollection of the clarity and lack of clarity over a 20 year period. We studied this in HIgh School. It was well known that automobiles were blamed so that stationary sources did not come under scrutiny.

            As far as defending CARB, remember these are the same wonderful people who brought us MTBE. MTBE polluted 100s of thousands of ground water wells and lakes around California. Remember how CARB shredded the MTBE research. It took years to get rid of MTBE. It was an absolute disaster. Even when it was finally revealed how bad MTBE was and it was legislated to be banned, it carried on for almost 2 more years. You see the petroleum companies had a multi billion dollar MTBE contract and they did not want to be left holding the bill.

            Now we have another wonderful additive which serves to lower mileage and has detrimental environmental consequences as well. We don’t need an additive at all. Every vehicle since 1980 has a oxygenate sensor system which takes care of the problem. Did it ever occur to CARB that if we didn’t have a mileage reducing additive, we might burn less fuel and produce less pollution.

            In a sane World, if someone like Hien Tran falsified his degree, then his research would be thrown out as well. And!, he should be fired if not put in jail. Last I heard they just moved him to a different department.

            CARB is just mechanism to propagate agenda driven social engineering. Science like Tolerance is on its way to extinction.

          2. I agree that Science seems to be on its way to extinction, which is why I encourage you to keep it alive rather than resorting to hyperbole. For example:

            – Automobiles contribute to the air pollution in Los Angeles. That is based on science.
            – The addition of MTBE to fuel reduced the level of hazardous exhaust emissions. That is based on science.
            – The discovery of MTBE in the water supply was bad news. But while high doses of MTBE are hazardous to lab animals, the low doses found in the water supplies have not caused any health issues… it just made the water taste funny. That is based on science.
            – A particular blend of fuel will only burn as cleanly as the blend allows. The O2 sensor cannot get the blend to burn any cleaner. Adding an oxygenate such as MTBE or ethanol will allow the fuel to burn more completely and more cleanly. That is based on science.
            – Better fuel economy does not necessarily equate to cleaner emissions. This VW issue is clear proof of that, though this is also based on science. The VW TDIs get 40 to 50 miles per gallon of fuel, but emit more NOx per mile than a 6.2L Chevy Suburban Diesel per mile.
            – Diesel particulate matter contributes to health issues. That is based on science. Regardless of the actions taken (or not taken) against Hien Tran, the science did not change and the end result would have been the same.

            The idea that “CARB is just [a] mechanism to propagate agenda driven social engineering” sounds like an opinion and belief which has nothing to do with Science. the points raised seem to indicate they followed the science to achieve the goals they were expected to achieve.

          3. Nice use of a rhetorical device, labeling the opposing statements and facts as hyperbole. In the interest of avoiding a corollary to Godwin’s law myself, let’s re-center on my original point.

            The governmental agency, CARB, is not held to the same standards as the automobile company, VW. In this example, the failure to dismiss Hien Tran, invalidate his research, and the environmental damage caused by MTBE.

            Here are a few “facts” about Hien Tran and his reserach.
            Portions from the action CARB filed against Hien Tran,
            (begin quoting)
            (a) Fraud in Securing Employment
            (b) Dishonesty
            (c) Other failure of good behavior either during or outside duty hours which is such a nature that it causes discredit to the appointing authority or the person’s employment.
            Statement of Facts:
            Your dishonesty regarding your education has called into question the validity of the report “Methodology for Estimating Premature Deaths Associated with Long-term Exposure to Fine Airborne Particulate Matter in California”, in which you were the project coordinator and lead author. This report in turn supports other controversial and critical regulations adopted by Air Resources Board. Your actions could create a long lasting and damaging reflection on ARB and the California Protection Agency.

            6. Dr. James Enstrom, along with Dr. Anthony Fucaloro, Dr. Mathew A. Malkan, and Dr. Robert F. Phalen, placed into the Regulatory record on December 3, 2008, a request to postpone and reassess California Air Resources Board Diesel Regulations. Specifically, Dr. Enstrom’s comments list his concerns regarding the final October 24, 2008, CARB Staff Report “Methodology for Estimating Premature Deaths Associated with Long-term Exposure to Fine Airborne Particulate Matter in California” in that the authors have no relevant peer reviewed publications and lead author Hien Tran has misrepresented his Ph.D. Since you were the lead and project coordinator of this report which was used to support the Regulation, your lack of credibility has called into question the credibility of the entire regulation.
            (end quoting)

            CARB’s response was to remove Dr. Enstrom from the Board, and pass the legislation. Dr. Enstrom’s peer-reviewed research challenged California’s status quo by contending that exposure to fine particulate matter, like diesel particles, does not cause premature death. UCLA also terminated Dr. Enstrom’s 35 year research career, citing reasons which were all disproved. In reality it was related to his conflict with CARB’s position. UCLA was forced to reinstate Dr. Enstrom after a two and half year legal battle.

            Reviewing just a few problems with MTBE. Gas station underground tanks were compromised by MTBE, leaking into the ground water. Fuel lines were dissolved by MTBE, sometimes causing automobile fires. MTBE polluted 100s of thousands of wells and lakes. People had health problems, most of them were settled out of Court and remain confidential.

            Questions arouse on CARB’s research. Why didn’t CARB know this was going to happen? If they did know, why did they let this happen? The CARB research went missing. If CARB’s research was peer reviewed, there should have been copies available from other sources. Research had to be repeated by others before MTBE could be legislated out of use.

            We already know part of what will happen to VW. What happened to CARB? Mary Nichols is still in charge. Hien Tran is still working there. Sure CARB paid some damages, but that was just our tax money. No individual suffered, well except Dr. Enstrom who tried to slow things down for further review.

            Nachtritter, are you in any way affiliated with CARB or Hien Tran? You can dispute this if you would like. Frankly that would be silly at this point. Anyone reading this can perform their own Google searches and confirm all of this. At this point it is common knowledge. No Peer review Science required.

    2. Not sure who are are accusing ” we are all gonna die” fanaticism, I didn’t read that in Brian’s article at all or in the comments, generally it mostly about the hubris that often comes with the quest of maximum profit. Even if science that you respected was used to come up with setpoints, the setpoints would still be arbitrary, because comprise has to be made to reduce emissions at the lowest cost for the traveling public. What the manufactures say is possible has role is part of the decision, anyone who has paid attententio to the business section in the newspaper understands that those being regulated have a large influence on legislation and regulation that effects them. Yes it’s bureaucrats who hammer out the setpoints, because in most governments it’s bureaucracies that actual do the work of the government. Many know how operate, but most likely few of those understand how diesel engine emission controls work. Can we expect you to send to tip line links to your or other’s work in instructing on that topic. the emissions of volcanoes is a strawman, be they aren’t something mankind can’t control.

  2. What does it matter if the car maker fudged a test to make a few extra percentage points? I live in Alberta and we have thousands of diesel vehicles around here. Lots are “Chipped” and blow out giant clouds of black smoke (Dickmobiles) when you stomp on it. Seems silly that an end user can mess with the emissions and suffer no penalty while we crucify a manufacturer for not quite making the cut and stacking the deck on a test. Let it go, it isn’t worth ruining a company and putting thousands of people out of work. Everyone who likes their VW can plant a damn tree and we can call it even.

  3. While the issue with the ECM code is certainly serious, no one was ever injured because of this hack. People were actually killed when Corvairs rolled over and when Pinto’s fuel tanks exploded. The statement by the author clearly mis states the serious differences between an ECM hack and unsafe vehicles.

  4. a lot of the diesel emissions “issues” can be solved by getting oil companies to stop playing “hide the nasty” with paraffin!

    when you refine crude oil there are heaps of distillation products that can’t be used and are expensive to get rid of.

    So some bright spark decided they could get rid of mega litres of paraffin in diesel, when you see black smoke coming out of a diesel exhaust it is the paraffin kinda, but not really “burning”.

    Here in Australia hardly anyone drives a petrol 4WD, petrol here is way over AUS$1.50/litre, diesel is more expensive but you get more power and better mileage.

    Better mileage is important here, when service stations can be a few hundred kilometres apart and running out of fuel can kill you.

    I would never do another Simpson Desert trip in a petrol car again!

  5. [quote]
    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.

    the link that’s referenced does not admit to anything of the sort, it just says that the US agencies found some manipulations, and the VWag will look into it, since this sort of occurence is a breach of trust between them and their customers.

    This smells of corruption since the first article about it aired. I guess someone didn’t get payed enough.
    oh and it’s just another carrot for all the donkeys out there. :-D

    now Beer, that’s a wonderful concoction!
    nJoy !

  6. CEO: “I accept full responsibility”….. then back to business as usual.

    Armed gas station robber: “I accept full responsibility”…… nope doesn’t work.

    “I accept full responsibility” – meaningless BS.

    “IF” the CEO had some sense of honor, he would commit ritual suicide
    on the steps of the corporate offices.

    I believe a Japanese banker caught up in a corruption scandal a few yrs
    back, did the honorable thing and did just that. Since he had bought shame
    to his family name. The only way to restore honor was for him to express
    remorse in a MEANINGFUL way (and ritual suicide got the point across –

  7. Not surprised by the least bit. The testing cycles used to gauge emissions on new cars are suboptimal at best, and all carmakers exploit it. In 2005 (or 06 I can’t remember exactly) BMW already had a boo-boo when discovered that the cars submitted to emissions evaluation had a modified ECU that recognised the NEDC testing cycle. More recently Volvo fell on their noses when the standard tests’ speeds were raised 5kph – the cars which passed the standard test with flying colors, failed this modified test with emissions raising fourfold of the thresholds.

  8. Look, Engineers know A,B,C and D.
    Middle Management knows D and E.
    Senior management knows E,F, and G.

    There is always some knowledge unique to each group that the others don’t know. As an Engineer, I would be very surprised if any of their engineers knew it was required to be running all the time. Odds are they simply saw it as a required process for testing, then when the test had been done, it can be turned off. Engineers are not legal experts, and even if Middle management knew about it, odds are THEY didin’t know about the switch off.

    This is the nature of every business.

    1. I don’t buy that the Engineer did not know that “it was required to be running all the time.” The engineers had to know the specifications they were designing to, as supplied by the EPA. They also knew what tests would be performed for certification. So the engineers had all the information they needed to either comply or to game the system. For whatever reason, the VW Engineers chose to game the system by intentionally detecting the test parameters. It was shown this was intentional by running only a portion of the EPA cycle on a VW TDI (rather than the full cycle from beginning to end) and having it fail, whereas on the full cycle it passed.

      I understand that auto manufacturers might “tune to the test” so that under particular conditions (regardless of when they happen), the emissions standards are met. But that is not what VW did… they specifically engineered the software to look for test conditions (possibly checking to see if OBD port is used, front wheels rotating but rear stationary, looking for specific loads that match with the EPA test cycle…) in order to set engine parameters such that the emissions were within spec. Any other time (even under particular conditions that were the same as a portion of the test, but were not part of a full test cycle), the engine parameters caused an excess of emissions. That amount of work is something that would require intent.

      So yes, the Engineer had to know what the specs were and intentionally violated them.

      It’s like saying to a highway patrol officer “Oh, I thought I only needed to follow the vehicle code during my driving test. You mean I ALWAYS have to follow the law? Whodathunk?”

  9. The issue is much bigger than just software. VW diesels have advanced in the last 25 years from being 60HP lumps, to over 150HP acceptable performance engines, all while staying within a couple hundered dcl (around 2.0l due to insurance constraints) and on a very similar base engine platform. Combine the physical limits of diesel fuel itself with an attempt to have low emissions and low consumption was a fiasco waiting to happen, only partally overcome by technological advances in ECU soft/hardware and direct commonrail injection.
    These TDi engines are praised by many due to their power/consuption ratio (although an M3 R6 or V8 engine actually has a much better ratio), and they used to be known for 200K mile longetivity. Not so much when they started installing CR injection. The reason the X5 in the real world test got much better results is most likely due to the higher displacement (50%).
    I think we have come to a point where VW needs to admit that the ~2.0 diesel has reached its physical limits with today’s regulation. The only way they can overcome this is to map the ECUs to the “emissions map”, which will likely cause a drop in power, torque, and may raise consumption. A hint to this is the news coming out that VW had been planing this hack since 2007, when they likely learned about future regulations and realized these engines could never meet them while having better performance at the same time.
    This may soon be known the death of the “legendary” TDi.

  10. I do not now how you guys but if I do code that ECU, while car is not moving, amount of fuel going to engine will be always close to minimal. Lets face it, if anyone pushing engine to its limits in Neutral/Parking or while break is pushed, its mean only this: someone stoped on crossing lights :)

  11. Does this actually surprise anyone? Emissions and economy regulations cost auto manufacturers millions of dollars, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. New vehicles are terribly expensive and much of that cost comes from the technology needed to meet government standards. I can assure you that every auto manufacturer is doing this on some level, and they should be. They have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. I’m not saying it is right, but I am saying it is happening, and it should not come as a surprise. The regulators should stay out emissions and let the consumers choose what to buy, if they want low emissions vehicles they will buy them, if not, they won’t buy them. Forcing things on people is what causes companies to cheat.

    1. “… regulators should stay out [of] emissions and let consumers choose what to buy …”

      You mean you would rather live in an environment like China, where air pollution contributes to the deaths of ~4,400 people PER DAY?? Who is paying the cost for all that lost labor? Certainly not those that are causing the pollution.

      If an auto manufacturer have a responsibility to maximize profits, what possible reasoning would they have to offer any kind of low emissions vehicles to customers if there are no regulations for it, when it would obviously cost millions of dollars (as you stated), the cost of which then would have to be passed to the tiny fraction of consumers that would want to pay multiple times the cost of a “normal emissions” vehicle just to have a vehicle that puts out lower emissions. No auto manufacturer in their right mind would put that kind of effort into a product that generates such a tiny fraction of their overall profit. Which would leave any urban area looking like China’s urban areas. I would much, much rather have the regulations and the ability to go outside and breath the air than suffer the pollution due to minimal or no regulation.

      Note that the choice a consumer makes on what vehicle to buy is rarely based on what is good for the environment or what is good for others… it is about what is good for the individual making the purchase. If the vehicle meets the needs of the consumer, then the consumer will choose it. That’s why the sales of light duty trucks (pickups, minivans, SUVs) exceed the sales of cars.

    2. “They have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits.”

      Which is the problem. Shareholders. Money. Maximizing money.
      And not to the environment, or even to safety….its just about maximizing money.
      So we add regulations to try to ensure that by maximizing money they don’t, for example, kill people as a by product.

      ” Forcing things on people is what causes companies to cheat.”

      Demanding people not sale poison makes them sale poison?

  12. Dear mr Benchoff:
    The title of this post is incorrect.
    The problem doesnt have anithing to do with engineering ethics. It is an ethic deficitt from the managers and from the allways profit system in witch we live

  13. There are 7 volcanos erupting aroubd the world each year. Each one produces 10 years of us poklution during each eruption. Every car is only 10 percent of the pollution of a 1970s car.

    There is no problem thiscwas a great hacktivist acy in favir 9f people who work for a living istead of the communist environazis

    1. Are you typing this on a phone? Or have some type of disability that interferes with your ability to type? If neither of those apply, you should learn to spell before writing comments on the internet. Because if your comment is poorly spelled, people will not think very highly of you, and by extension, people with the same opinion.

  14. While I agree this is a blatant cheat, and hurt environment to some extent, surely there are bigger ethical problems we have as a society. Fining a company like Volkswagen such an exorbitant amount will certainly hurt the private sector jobs. Why should a bureaucrat who makes nothing be allowed to choose an arbitrary amount (in excess of the car value!!!) to fine a car maker?
    One of the biggest ethical issues (nobody discusses anymore) is not balancing the budget. We can’t keep playing with funny money and passing it down to our kids. In other words, having the hacks in the government pretending they can re-engineer our society with our kid’s money (better than we as parents can) is tragic at a far higher level than this cheating behavior.

    1. If I understand correctly, what you are saying is until the budget is balanced, no other government organization should worry about upholding the law? Or is it only if direct harm to life and limb… only then, the agencies should uphold the law? So if a bank “accidentally” loses your life savings, you’d be OK with having no recourse, because doing so may cause bank employees to lose their jobs? Interesting…

  15. The whole engineering thing is completely explainable when you look at it as a result of decisions made by a large number of separate people.

    The first person is asked to find a way of getting the engine to pass the emissions tests. They do this by derating the engine torque and power.

    The second person is asked to increase the power levels so to improve the customer experience, they do this by bypassing the emissions controls for a short period of time.

    The third person is asked to ensure the emission levels are not exceeded during an emissions test. They do this by ensuring that the emissions control bypass is not triggered during the emissions test.

    These are all perfectly valid things for an employee to do.

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