Everyone these days is talking about Volkswagen and how they made a software that cheated in vehicle emission tests. Volkswagen's stock price is tanking, CEO has been asked to resign, EU bureaucrats are looking into it and other major engine manufacturers are being investigated as well.
Let me give my opinion on all this affair.
How did they do it?
Quote from EPA violation notice sums it up well enough:
The 'switch' sense whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine's operation, and barometric pressure. These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure used for emission testing for EPA certification purposes. During EPA emission testing, the vehicles' ECM ran software which produced compliant emission results
So, they added a piece of code to vehicles' ECU block that was able to detect testing mode and then adjust engines' operating parameters. It's very similar to what ECU tuning shops do, except Volkswagen did it to reduce emissions in certain cases and petrolheads do it to achieve best possible performance from their cars.
Whose decision was it?
Some dude on hackaday sees a big ethical issue here:
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 dude apparently knows nothing about how corporations work. There is no way in hell that some engineer came to his boss and said: "Hey, I just figured out a way to cheat in USA emission tests, do you think it will be useful for our company?".
No. Fucking. Way.
I'm convinced that this decision came from the middle management and was passed down to engineers. Something like: "We don't care how you do it, just make sure our diesel engine passes those tests. Just don't tell us how you managed that." Plausible deniability, you know.
However, dude from hackaday is absolutely right in another aspect - some engineer will likely lose his job over this. It's not because he did something wrong, it's because the company needs a scapegoat. Just like they sacrificed Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn - CEO had nothing to do with a scandal, it's just one of those steps company needs to do to make a good PR.
How did they get caught?
As strange as it sounds, they got caught by accident. International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) wanted to convince European bureaucrats to implement strict US standards for diesel emissions in EU. So, they hired West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE) to run tests in the field. And as interim director of CAFEE explains:
They rented VW diesels, measured their tailpipe emissions on the road and compared them to measurements on the same cars made in the lab. The discrepancies were huge.
So, the scientists made some presentations in 2014, published their research online, and nobody except USA bureaucrats cared about it. Until last week, that is.
Now suddenly everybody is acting as if the world is going to be destroyed by this.
So, how bad it really is?
Let me answer this question with a quote from the original EPA news release:
These violations do not present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive and resell. Owners of cars of these models and years do not need to take any action at this time.
I'll give you a moment to think about that.
482'000 cars in USA alone. 11'000'000 cars in the whole world. 5 years. Exceeding NOx limits 20 times. Affected cars are not a safety hazard. USA cities are not covered in black smog. In fact, nobody noticed anything for 5 years. What does it tell you?
To me, the answer is simple - those NOx limits are fucking bullshit. They make your car more expensive and reduce horsepower of your engine. They don't save the planet. They are there because some bureaucrat needs to justify his puny existance in some environmental agency.
Don't get me wrong - I do care about the environment. But you are not helping the environment much by limiting already small emissions of NOx. Instead, you should rather look at the Asia and their industrial practices. For example, burning down forests in Sumatra - which produce so much smoke that the entire Singapore city (being 80 kilometers away from Sumatra!) has its air quality deteriorating to a "very unhealthy" range. Or look at the half of China's rivers which are polluted with industrial waste and fertilizers. Now, that is something that actually needs fixing!
To sum it all up
Volkswagen knew these regulations are bullshit and won't save the Earth. They knew their engines can't pass them. So, they had balls big enough to give all bureaucrats the finger and cheated their way through.
I say - good for them! In my scorebook it's "Volkswagen 1, Bureaucrats 0".