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Engineering Conspiracy

Volkswagen and Beyond

We must not do this. 

We are not soldiers. 

We are not slaves.

Engineers are not mindless minions, obligated to serve at the whims of oppressive overlords. We are among the best and the brightest of humanity. For engineering is the one vocation that most separates humans from other species wandering the planet. Engineers are an exclusive and privileged fraternity instilled with the knowledge, skills, and passion to solve problems, to create things that have not existed before, and to make the world a better place. 

Recently, as explained in Jim Turley’s article, Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, admitted that they had engineered software in many of their diesel cars that cheated emissions tests by disabling functions of the emission control system – except when the software detected that an actual emissions test was likely to be taking place. The result was that, under normal use, the engines generated more power and better fuel economy, but produced as much as 40x the allowable level of NOx emissions. The company manufactured an estimated 11 million cars between 2009 and 2015 with the malicious code. The fallout has just begun, but the implications are massive.

When something like this Volkswagen conspiracy erupts, it reflects on the ethics of the engineering profession itself and therefore on every one of us. It damages the public trust in our community and in our vocation. Every one of us has failed. 

We must not do this. 

So far, we do not know how the Volkswagen diesel conspiracy was hatched and hidden. We cannot tell who had the idea, who approved the decision, who wrote the code, and who kept silent knowing what was being done. We may never know. Software is a near-perfect platform for secreting engineering conspiracy. It does not show itself in the bill of materials or the procurement chain. It does not have to be handled and installed by complicit assembly line workers, or knowingly glossed over by the otherwise watchful eyes of QA inspectors. Software sits silently and invisibly inside our system with its full truths known only by a select few. 

The secret world of software is the ultimate proving ground for our ethics.  Doing good under the harsh light of public scrutiny is easy. But the choices we make in darkness, when no one is looking and when we have little fear of discovery, are the truest tests of our mettle.

Business types have created and promoted a dangerous myth called “Fiduciary Responsibility” that requires that the interests of the shareholders trump that of all others. It means that the needs of the customer, the employee, and the public at large are somehow all expendable when it comes to the bottom line and “maximizing shareholder value.” We should expand this notion of fiduciary responsibility. Companies should be charged with equally serving the interests of investors, employees, customers, and the world. We should expect no less than behavior and solutions that are beneficial for all these groups, and we should reject the notion of win/lose compromises that elevate one at the expense of the others.

Much has been made in the media about the failure of Volkswagen’s management and culture. As with most scandals, executives are held accountable, dismissed, and punished – even if they were simply trying to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. After all, our society believes that ultimate responsibility lies at the top, and that the buck should stop with those in charge. Leaders are chosen and compensated for this role. It’s an easy fallacy to accept.

As engineers, we can pretend to go along with this convenient notion. We can feign disgust at the greed and the despicable conduct of corporate leaders. But deep down we all know the truth. Executives did not write and test the code. Executives most likely did not hatch the idea in the first place. It is possible that executives did not even know about the conspiracy. It is not possible that engineers did not know.

As engineers, our job is to create innovative solutions that meet specific requirements within a set of defined constraints. Our constraints include the laws of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. They include the demands of marketing, management, and the customer. They include the reality of economics. And they must also always include ethics. For if we engineer something that violates our own ethics, we have committed inestimable evil. We have knowingly used our skills to give birth to wrongdoing – and once we do that, we have no control over the consequences.

We must not do this. 

I seriously doubt that the engineering team at Volkswagen was chartered to cheat. They were undoubtedly asked to design a system that met all of the requirements ethically. The cheating almost certainly came later, when real engineering failed, when the combination of constraints presented something the team felt was an unsolvable problem. Engineering never offers the guarantee of a solution. It is always possible – even likely – that the requirements of a new problem are beyond our engineering abilities. When we encounter that situation, there is often a temptation to take the easy road, to cheat, to design to the test and not the task, to create a solution that satisfies the letter but not the spirit of the law – a temptation to put aside our ethics.

We must not do this.

A colleague and I found ourselves with different views when speculating about how a conspiracy like Volkswagen’s might have come to pass. I guessed that the idea originated with, and was executed by, engineers. He proposed a scenario where an otherwise-innocent engineering team was forced into nefarious action by oppressive management under threat of loss of employment. I do not know which of our models is closer to reality.

But I do know that there are few things I find more pathetic than engineers whining and worrying about their jobs. You are more powerful than that. Eschew employment. Solve a problem. Start a team or join one. Do what you were meant to do. Get out there and engineer something. Engineer something excellent. Engineer something ethical. Engineer something that makes the world a better place, something that helps people, something that is worthy of the skills and intelligence you have worked so hard to hone.

But this? We must not do this.

8 thoughts on “Engineering Conspiracy”

  1. In an ideal world, honor above all. But gee, engineers are people, and engineers and scientists and doctors – supposedly holding truth in rather high esteem – have committed all sorts of incredible crimes, and I hardly need to offer examples, except to note the very creative but subversive code created every day by some of the best programmers, just to get into our bank accounts or steal company IP. The world is full of good and bad people, not only programmers but in finance and every other profession you can name.

    But how do we stop it? I suppose it is already a crime to write code which helps someone (VW) break the law. It seems the best we can do is to learn what sort of pressures created the current software crime, and where in the chain of command, and once we learn that story, try to come up with standards which might help identify potentially suspect projects, and educate programmers and their bosses, so they might pause to think before ordering someone to cheat.

  2. There has been some very interesting reading about cheating in Contract Bridge this month. It’s a game that assumes people don’t cheat, but offers the greatest rewards to those that cheat skilfully.

    The lesson with that, and nearly every other walk of life with easy to cheat rule sets … is that those that design the games/rules/regulations really need to study formal Game Theory, and create games/rules/regulations that are easier to monitor/police, with stiffer penalties for violating the trust of other players in the game/market.

    The only other choice is to design the game/rules expecting that skilful cheating and manipulation of the rules will occur, especially for the skilful players, and have those advantages minimized by the construction of the games/rules/regulation formation.

    In this case, the engineers/regulators designing the testing stations, also failed to do their job, which includes being significantly less predictable/trusting, and specifically designing regulations/tests to check for cheats (either the OEM or owners doing ECM MODS). Require 1-10% of all emissions tests to actually be done in the field with road side testing, plus a significant number of on-vehicle tests by loading the vehicle up with a portable testing gear in the right seat, wired to sensors attached to the vehicle for the road test.

  3. Great article, Kevin. I couldn’t agree more. We must not do this. It is a simple question of integrity.

    It looks like the key engineers actually reported the situation – according to the German news – years ago, as early as 2008. Only a detailed investigation will tell. But I agree. We must not do this.

  4. C’mon, it’s just another battle in the commercial war that keeps this world running.

    Not only: like polluting fuel-guzzling SUVs also this is a creation of EPA and their absurdly strict emission standards.

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks very much for saying this, and the way that you said it! It needs to be said to all engineers, and I will post a link to this for my Engineering students.

  6. A couple of thoughts

    1) VW doesn’t employ firmware guys to game the ECU. They buy these units, complete with firmware, from suppliers, so the conspiracy spreads beyond VW, to at least one level down of suppliers.

    2) This hasn’t killed anyone. GM paid out for 124 deaths caused by a mechanical ignition switch failure. There are probably more deaths and many more injuries. While the VW decision was, as far as I can see, not known to top level management, the GM problems appear to have been – the board had to have known about law suits. No one has fallen on their sword at GM

  7. Dick … YOU COMPLETELY MISSED THE TARGET WITH A FALSE STATEMENT “This hasn’t killed anyone.” The “This” is air pollution caused by auto’s continues to KILL EVERY YEAR … by the millions world wide, including high numbers in the US.

    GuidoGam … they are not absurd … your assertion is false.

    I ask of both of you, how many babies and elderly are auto makers allowed to kill each year, since BOTH of you completely dismiss this issue?

    While US continues to address air pollution it remains a significant problem, worse world wide, as particulate and NOx emissions contribute significantly to deaths. Those writing regulations and engineers designing compliance testing that fail to catch wilful violators, have not only violated the public trust placed in them, but continue to allow many thousands of deaths the public are expecting to avoid/stop/suspend/prevent.

    VW bypassing these emission regulatory limits globally, is one step backwards, toward more air pollution related deaths for people on this planet.

    This remains a REAL problem with REAL deaths for children and elderly. Even in the US, children and elderly living near freeways continue to die.

    As noted in previous Report Cards (2001, 2003, and 2004), stringent regulations on industrial and vehicle emissions have allowed the South Coast Air Basin (SoCAB) to make tremendous improvements in air quality over the past 30 years. Despite these improvements, this region still does not meet federal standards for ozone and particulate matter and Los Angeles continues to hold the dubious honor of being the most polluted city in the nation [1].

    This article focuses on health effects that ambient and traffic related air pollution has on pregnant women, their infants, and young children. Los Angeles County has a relatively young population due to births and migration. The County’s population includes 2.7 million children under 18 years of age, and 27% of adults are in their peak reproductive years (ages 18-34). Approximately 150,000 births occur every year in Los Angeles County, accounting for over one-quarter of all births in California. Thus, any effects air pollution has on human development in utero, as well as on infant and children’s health, is of great concern to those who live in this region.

    Compared to the inhalation of cigarette smoke during active or passive smoking, the gases and particles in ambient air pollution are relatively diluted, resulting in relatively small risk increases for reproductive and children’s health outcomes. For the most part, the increased risks for pregnancy outcomes in more polluted versus less polluted areas range from 10 to 30 percent for preterm birth and low birth weight, and between 5 and 20 percent for infant mortality. Yet when we consider the number of infants, children, and pregnant women affected by air pollution in Southern California, and that these outcomes are not rare, even small relative increases in risk translate into large numbers making the total impact due to air pollution a major problem. Certain vulnerable population segments — the poorest and most exposed — may experience much higher risks.

    Aug 2007: There is growing evidence of a distinct set of freshly-emitted air pollutants downwind from major highways, motorways, and freeways that include elevated levels of ultrafine particulates (UFP), black carbon (BC), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and carbon monoxide (CO). People living or otherwise spending substantial time within about 200 m of highways are exposed to these pollutants more so than persons living at a greater distance, even compared to living on busy urban streets. Evidence of the health hazards of these pollutants arises from studies that assess proximity to highways, actual exposure to the pollutants, or both. Taken as a whole, the health studies show elevated risk for development of asthma and reduced lung function in children who live near major highways. Studies of particulate matter (PM) that show associations with cardiac and pulmonary mortality also appear to indicate increasing risk as smaller geographic areas are studied, suggesting localized sources that likely include major highways. Although less work has tested the association between lung cancer and highways, the existing studies suggest an association as well. While the evidence is substantial for a link between near-highway exposures and adverse health outcomes, considerable work remains to understand the exact nature and magnitude of the risks.

    Health impacts are mainly driven by fine PM; other pollutants (“traffic soup”) add to the health burden.
    * Asthma
    * Decreased lung function
    * Cancer
    * Heart disease
    * Mortality (Heart attack, stroke, pneumonia, acute respiratory & stunted lung growth)
    * Low birthweight, preterm birth, and birth defects
    Dramatically elevated pollutant levels associated with these impacts are typically found within 500 feet of busy roadways, but can extend much further under certain conditions (e.g. inversions).

    Traffic-related air pollution is a main contributor to unhealthy ambient air quality, particularly in urban areas with high traffic volume. Within urban areas, traffic is a major source of local variability in air pollution levels, with the highest concentrations and risk of exposure occurring near roads. Motor vehicle emissions represent a complex mixture of criteria air pollutants, including carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM), as well as hydrocarbons that react with NOx and sunlight to form ground-level ozone. Individually, each of these pollutants is a known or suspected cause of adverse health effects (1–4). Taking into consideration the entire body of evidence on primary traffic emissions, a recent review deterApproximately 11.3 million persons (or 3.7% of the 308.7 million U.S. population) live within 150 meters of a major highway. State-level estimates ranged from 1.8% in Maine to 5.6% in New York (Figure). Regional patterns, based on U.S. Census Bureau groupings, indicate that the estimated proportion of the population living within 150 meters of a major highway ranged from 3.1% in the Midwest and 3.3% in the South to 4.3% in the Northeast and 4.4% in the West. The proportion of the population living near a major highway did not differ by sex (Table). By age group, the estimated proportion of persons living close to a major highway varied from 3.4% among those aged 45–79 years to ?4.0% among those aged 18–34 years.mined that there is sufficient evidence of a causal association between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and asthma exacerbation and suggestive evidence of a causal association for onset of childhood asthma, nonasthma respiratory symptoms, impaired lung function, all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cardiovascular morbidity (5).

    Approximately 11.3 million persons (or 3.7% of the 308.7 million U.S. population) live within 150 meters of a major highway. State-level estimates ranged from 1.8% in Maine to 5.6% in New York (Figure). Regional patterns, based on U.S. Census Bureau groupings, indicate that the estimated proportion of the population living within 150 meters of a major highway ranged from 3.1% in the Midwest and 3.3% in the South to 4.3% in the Northeast and 4.4% in the West. The proportion of the population living near a major highway did not differ by sex (Table). By age group, the estimated proportion of persons living close to a major highway varied from 3.4% among those aged 45–79 years to ?4.0% among those aged 18–34 years.

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