The new “Volkswagen Scandal”

There is a thesis about conspiracies (and their associated conspiracy theories) I am somewhat sympathetic to, even though I know of numerous counterexample which undermine it: the bigger the alleged conspiracy, the less likely the conspiracy theory. The thought is this: it is hard to keep secrets, so the more people who know and the longer they are expected to stay silent, the more likely someone will spill the beans.

It is, when you think about it, either an odd thing to believe, or a laudable sentiment; either humans suck at keeping secrets or we’re basically good people who will blow the whistle given time and opportunity. The problem is, there are numerous examples where, if this really were the case, people managed to keep shtum nonetheless. The Moscow Trials, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and, now, the “fine” people at Volkswagen.

Let me fill you in, in case you’ve been avoiding automobile news over the last few weeks; Volkswagen sell a number of diesel-powered cars throughout the world. Testing in Europe showed that Volkswagen’s new, developed in house, pollution-reduction system – found in their small to mid-sized diesel cars – was nowhere near as effective as Volkswagen’s claims. On the basis of this, Californian regulators decided to test a series of diesel cars – not just Volkswagen’s ones – in order to show that the US’s tougher regulations worked; the expected result would be that diesel cars on the American market emitted less dangerous pollutants then their European equivalents.

The testing, which was undertaken at West Virginia University, ended up producing a very vexing result. In the lab the Volkswagen vehicles performed to spec, but when near identical tests were undertaken on the road, the same vehicles produced 30 to 40 times more pollutants than the legal maximum. Testers were stumped, and called in technicians from Volkswagen to explain the difference between real world tests, and what they were finding in the labs. Those technicians made a whole bunch of claims about how the tests weren’t being done properly, how the measurements were faulty; basically, they blamed the people in the laboratory for not doing their jobs properly. That was until the people in the lab came up with the idea of fooling the car in the lab to thinking it was out on the open road. Suddenly, the test results lined up, and it became obvious Volkswagen had, once again, used a sophisticated cheat/defeat device in order to get their cars past the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A little history: in the 1970s a whole bunch of automobile manufacturers – including Volkswagen – were caught using defeat devices in order to get past environmental protection regulations in the U.S. So, there’s form. Meanwhile, in the late 2000s Volkswagen decided to bet on diesel-powered cars, rather than hybrid vehicles, in the move to turn towards a kinder, more environmentally friendly can manufacturer. Diesel vehicles produce significant amounts of pollutants, and the usual way in which such pollutants are dealt with is to either treat them with urea before they leave the vehicle via the exhaust, or just trap them. Volkswagen decided that in their small to mid-sized vehicles getting customers to change or refill urea tanks would be a burden, so they settled on trapping the pollutants. Then new CEO, Martin Winterkorn, elected to work with or develop an in-house solution.

The drive (sorry… not sorry) towards producing environmentally friendly cars was not just about kindness, or avoiding fines; by promising that their cars would be environmentally friendly, Volkswagen also were entitled to claim environmental funding and tax credits. As such, there was a significant financial motive to ensure that the cars would pass muster if and when tested.

Not just that, but there were also the customers to think about. Cars which trap or treat pollutants use more fuel; basically, to make a car environmentally friendly, you sacrifice fuel efficiency. Whilst car owners presumably want their cars to not pollute excessively (although some owners seem to revel in that kind of thing), most car owners also want to spend as little on fuel as possible (I don’t know of any exceptions to that rule). So, it was in the interest of Volkswagen to produce fuel efficient cars buyers would want, whilst simply claiming – albeit falsely – that the cars were environmentally friendly to boot. That itself is another motive.

Herein lies the rub: why did Volkswagen cheat? Was their technology simply not up to the challenge, or did they intend to cheat their way through testing from the very start? Whatever the case, Volkswagen engaged in a prolonged period of deceptive practices, which involved a number of people. This is, my friends, an example of a conspiracy. It also seems to be one in which a lot of people kept secret their malfeasance for quite some time.

Let us deal with the easy issue first: between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen enabled a defeat device on small to mid-sized diesel cars sold around the world which made them environmentally friendly in lab, but only in the lab. Once out on the open road, these vehicles polluted like cars that just don’t care.

Six years might not seem like a long time, but given the suspicion which automobile manufacturers routinely “suffer”, along with the fact that someone tried to blow the whistle on this back in 2011, means this was a significant amount of time for Volkswagen to get away with their scheme.

It was also a fairly big scheme. Whilst the American market for diesel cars is quite small – and Volkswagen’s share of it smaller – Volkswagen has admitted the cheat device is found in 11 million cars worldwide (a number which seems to increase day-by-day). This is no small and trifling matter of conspiracy; we have a good idea of why Volkswagen would desire to cheat, and an even better idea of the scale of the problem. Which leaves us with the big question: who knew about it?

This is the part of the story which fascinates me the most. The senior management of Volkswagen claims the whole problem can be blamed upon just a few malcontents in their company. That is, of course, precisely what you would expect senior management to say. Although Martin Winterkorn eventually resigned as CEO over this matter, and was instrumental in Volkswagen developing their own pollutant-trapping system, he claims he was just as flummoxed by revelations as everyone else. As you would expect him to say.

So, what can we say. Well, the conspirators who developed the cheat device were engineers who worked for Volkswagen. We also know that the electronics supplier, Bosch, warned Volkswagen to only use the “test mode” setting internally, which means managers were aware of the issue. Given that this cheat device was installed in numerous vehicles, either multiple sets of engineers were complicit, or the engineers did not sufficiently test the vehicles they were helping to develop.

Side note: A few commentators online have suggested that the cheat device is not a cheat device, but that Volkswagen produced a test mode and then forgot to disable it. As such, when challenged on the anomalous test results, the Volkswagen technicians would have been confused by the anomalous results and really would have believed that the lab techs at Western Virginia University were mistaken. Whilst we can’t completely rule this hypothesis out of contention, it certainly seems like a weak defence; if this problem was isolated to, say, one model of car sold at one point in time, sure. Six years and multiple models? To believe this requires too much charity, I reckon.

Our set of conspirators, then, is quite a few people, and that’s only if we think the pool is restricted to engineers who work at Volkswagen. I think we can safely add to that number elements of middle and upper management, given that Volkswagen is reportedly a very hierarchical organisation, with a lot of control exercised by senior management. The idea this was all the work of a few rascals seems unlikely… Well, unless those rascals were upper management, who ordered unwilling subordinates to do their work.

If this is true, then it would soothe the consciences of people who think big conspiracies are unlikely (and thus theories about such conspiracies are the kind of thing we can pooh-pooh). If it really was just a few bad eggs/apples/whatever, then, sure, it’s a big scandal, but it’s not big in that special way which would challenge our assumptions about the likelihood of certain kinds of conspiracy theories.

Which leads to another question; why did it take so long for this to come out? If we assume there were quite a few engineers involved, and that multiple teams were aware their vehicles weren’t quite the epitome of environment design, why didn’t someone leak this to the regulators or the media? Well, someone did try in 2011, but that was quickly buried by Volkswagen (thus giving us more evidence that quite a few people had to be in the know). The Software Engineering Code of Ethics, agreed to by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). the Institute of Electrical and the Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is pretty clear that engineers are ethically obliged to report such cheating devices. However, the personal cost of doing so means such whistleblowing ends up being rare. For one, you will likely stop being employed as your claims are being rigorously denied and then hesitantly investigated. You might also be sued for brining your (past) employer into disrepute. Also, not many companies employ whistleblowers, either, since they are a bit of a known liability. Thus, you might well have had a culture at Volkswagen were a lot of people knew what was going on, but nobody spoke out about it.

That is what really fascinates me. I think there is a goodly chance a lot of people at Volkswagen knew about the cheat devices, and it wasn’t just the actions of a malfeasant few. I think this might well be an example of a big conspiracy. It’s not at all unreasonable to think large chunks elements of Volkswagen’s management – from the engineering teams to the CEO’s office – knew exactly what they were getting away with, and yet the culture ensured news did not get out. If that turns out to be the case (and we might never know, because it’s in the interest of Volkswagen to minimise any claims about who knew what and when), then this is just more evidence that you really can get away, with a lot of your friends, with conspiring to be truly awful for quite some time.