Did Volkswagen know it was shipping defeat-device software in millions of vehicles?

Sept. 23, 2015

Problems deepen for Volkswagen, which said that it may have shipped 11 million vehicles worldwide that contain software that can circumvent effective emissions testing.

One question that comes to mind is, how does the car know when it’s undergoing emissions testing? My first thought was that it could detect a connection to its onboard diagnostics port. But that’s apparently not the case—the software may have detected more subtle details.

Robert Wall in the Wall Street Journal writes, “It is unclear what the VW software in question did specifically to reduce emissions during testing. But by collating such data as tire rotation, steering, and use of the accelerator, a program could determine whether a car was being driven on the road or merely on a test bed at an emissions-testing station.” For example, he adds, a lack of steering-wheel input could suggest a test is underway.

It’s also not clear, Wall writes, whether Volkswagen produced the software itself or obtained it from a third party. Wall notes that Robert Bosch GmbH sells components to VW for use in the cars now under investigation, but Bosch says that “…responsibility for calibrating and integrating the components supplied by Bosch into the system as a whole lies with VW.”

The New York Times asks an even more puzzling question: “What was Volkswagen thinking?” The Times’ editorial board writes, “It is incredible that anyone at Volkswagen thought the company could get away with it. Did the engineers and executives who came up with that bit of cheating software ever consider the enormous risk they were taking? Did they really think it was worth the inestimable damage to their customers, to the environment, to their shareholders and to their venerable brand to squeeze a bit of illicit power out of their engines?”

It’s too often the case that manufacturers take too long to identify problems, fail to recognize the severity of the problems, and are slow to make repairs—see, for example, “Report details engineering’s role in GM Cobalt switch defect.” But at least in the case of GM, no one sat down to deliberately design a defective ignition switch. Is it possible that VW’s “defeat device” software was introduced unintentionally? Could the software have served some purpose during R&D and was inadvertently left in place on millions of production vehicles? We’ll learn more, but that seems unlikely.

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